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Breaking new land

 
                                                  
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I'm not sure if this is the right forum for this topic, so please don't get upset if it isn't. Just tell me where to put it.

I am in the process of clearing part of 30A to build a small farm. I am sure some will cringe at the idea of clearing new land, but there is so little farmland in Alaska that clearing forest is almost the only way to get any. Also, our forests are terribly stressed right now from bark beetles and other climate-related changes. Our area was just moved from zone 3 to zone 4 because of the last decade's warming trend. When I bought the land five years ago, it was a boreal spruce forest. Now almost all the spruce are dead from beetle infestation, and are a significant fire hazard. I'd rather harvest the trees while the wood is still useable.

I need suggestions regarding gentle ways to turn raw land into farmland. Right now I'm open to any and all suggestions. I have about five or six acres cleared, and will be harvesting timber off of about ten more acres during the next few months.  There is a dense root mat and the top foot or two of this land are mostly partially rotted logs and duff. Below that is about three feet of topsoil, which overlies clean, gravelly glacial till. I have a natural "kettle" pond fed by ground water. The slope to the pond will be cleaned up but not cleared for farmland.

I hope to be able to move there in about two to three years. I would like to have enough acres arable to be able to take my family off of the supply chain, and to provide surplus for market. Our dream is to eventually (the operative word!) build a sustainable polyculture of livestock, berries, cold-weather vegetables, and poultry, supplemented by row tunnel crops and greenhouses.  We expect to put  some of the acreage into experimental orchards of cold-tolerant trees such as are found along the US-Canadian border.

Sooo... Anyone out there ever done something like this? What are the cautions, and what are the best practices?
 
Cory Allan
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Whatever you do, don't throw away those trees! Use them to build hugelkultur beds. Look up sepp holzer and how he put a lot of waste lumber to very productive use on his land.
 
Tyler Ludens
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You might also want to look into what foods grow there naturally so you can preserve any native food plants you might reveal during the clearing of the dead trees.

 
Paul Cereghino
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Since you posted to the Permaculture part of the forum you'll get the permaculture angle.

What are the physical processes that define your site?  I'm going to guess that things like wind and frost drainage will be important.  Retaining belts of natural vegetation between fields might give you windbreaks or multipurpose hedgerows.  In that case, not disturbing the natural groundcover might give you the best start in your harsh climate for species that are more like the native vegetation.

If you don't have it already...
Kari, Priscilla Russel.  1995.  Tanaina Plantlore: an ethnobotany of hte Dena'ina Indians of Southcentral Alaska.  Alaska Native Language Center, Alaska Natural Heritage Association and National Park service, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, AK, USA.

I'd consider staking out natural areas as part of your field system, then start manipulating your native 'hedgerows', remove stuff you don't want, salvaging stuff from the future fields  that you want to keep.

If you climate freezes, then snows... that is very different than if it snows, then freezes, in terms of what happens to water during snow melt.  If you have frozen ground under snow then during snow melt your fields become a tremendous source of runoff, which might be useful or a problem depending on whether you have designed around that. 

Don't know much about your ecoregion, so good luck, and talk to lots of locals.  Because you are so wild land rich up there, What I have seen in my visits suggests that folks don't cherish the soils and vegetation much (not that they really do down here...).  Alaska seems like it is still in the 'colonial expansion-manifest destiny' frame of reference.  The term 'breaking new land'  is kind of interesting from that sociological perspective.  Is the land really new, or is it you that is new?  What are you breaking?  I bet that you are in a high carbon, fungal based soil systems, and if you are going to a bacterial based annual system that you will have some 'breaking' to do.  Sorry to hear about the spruce!  Are you inland?  What is there to come in when the spruce die?
 
                                                  
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Paul: Thanks for your long note. You wrote: wind and frost drainage will be important.  Retaining belts of natural vegetation between fields might give you windbreaks or multipurpose hedgerows.

That's a good idea. We are planning to retain natural vegetation and undisturbed soil around the pond, and probably will need hedgerows to protect some of the crop areas.

Tanaina Plantlore: an ethnobotany of the Dena'ina Indians of Southcentral Alaska.
Don't have, but have read parts. Also do have Kalifornsky and Boraas collection of Dena'ina lore specific to the area we are in.

If you climate freezes, then snows... that is very different than if it snows, then freezes, in terms of what happens to water during snow melt...
Generally, snow comes before the deep freeze. The Kenai Peninsula does not have permafrost, and our area has especially good drainage with the glacial till  underlayer, which is very deep. However, breakup (snow melt) can get pretty sticky because the topsoil is deep for Alaska, and contains relatively little organic matter in comparison to loess and silt.

Don't know much about your ecoregion, so good luck, and talk to lots of locals.
This area does not have a lot of agricultural tradition beyond hayfields for horses. There are one or two beef farms, a lot of people have a few chickens, goats, and sheep, but there are only a handful of vegetable producers in the entire central Kenai. One very helpful neighbor has been experimenting with apples for about twenty-five years.

The climate is somewhat different from the more southerly area down by Homer, and there is a climate break about halfway between the town of Kenai and the town of Homer that is fairly dramatic. There is a big change in vegetation and an even more dramatic change in the ocean biology of Cook Inlet. That is a topic for elsewhere, though. We are in the northern end, in a period of transition, with very few farming neighbors to rely on for advice.


Alaska seems like it is still in the 'colonial expansion-manifest destiny' frame of reference.
You can say that again! I could go on and on...

The term 'breaking new land'  is kind of interesting from that sociological perspective.
Okay,  you got me. The land is old. I left out the adjective "agricultural."  We could probably have a fun discussion of historical notions and semantics over a beer.

Sorry to hear about the spruce!  Are you inland?  What is there to come in when the spruce die?
There is not a lot out there. When we spoke to the state's division of forestry representative in the area about whether sugar maple and other hardwoods with long term commercial potential would be considered invasive species, he said to please try them, so he'd have something to plant when the rest of the forest migrates north. Right now, the forest is in transition to north-temperate hardwood, and the birches are doing fairly well.
 
Paul Cereghino
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Sounds like you on the right path.  Someone before mentioned hugelkultur... Reading sepp holzer might be interesting, because he works in an alpine setting and plays around with microclimate a lot... his hugelbeet are not just for wood, but create drainage, heat absorbing surfaces, and roughness to reduce surface winds -- I only read his 'Rebel Farmer' and didn't find what I was looking for -- I don't know if his Permaculture book has any more details. 

Given the installation costs I suspect Hugelbeet are more of a zone 1-2 feature, while it sounds like you are thinking zone 3 (permaculture-wise)... but than again, everyone in AK owns a backhoe right?

I imagine there could be a relationship between the greenhouses you need for many crops, and the wind, and hugel berms...  Increasing surface roughness - with parabola shaped green belts as sun traps...

Some friends used to work at Seward, and I spent a month with them once--very big beautiful country.  I still remember the boat trip through the Fjords and wandering in the hills, and eagles fighting over fish guts like seagulls.
 
Dale Hodgins
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  Farming success in your area is likely to come down to microclimates. Anything you can do to stretch your growing season will determine whether crops ripen or not. So if you're looking for palm trees and watermelons a greenhouse will be absolutely necessary .

    You'll probably find that flattish sections of south facing slopes will provide the best microclimates. You'll want to have shelter belts but because of your latitude it would not make sense to have tall trees immediately to the north. During your summer the sun comes up in the North East and sets in the North West. You're going to want to make maximum usage of your long summer days. In Ontario Canada I've seen the Amish use a horse-drawn harrow to scratch the surface of soil in the early spring to facilitate and earlier warm-up. The increased surface area helps to dry things out and a greater amount of cold soil comes in contact with warm air. They can get a three-week jump on tractor farmers. With hugelkulture it should be possible to get an early warm-up by incorporating dry manure to the top of beds in early spring. The compost will heat and make the entire bed ready for use at an earlier date. If you're not averse to using plastic a covering of this will help a lot. Clear plastic works better than black but it also helps the weeds get an early start.

  Strategically piled rocks whether as walls or just stacks can help you in heat retention and they can be used to redirect cold winds that migrate down slope.

    I have lived in the boreal forest although further south. A small section of soil with crushed charcoal added warms up quickly due to the heat absorption properties of black surfaces.

  I wouldn't worry too much about negative aspects of completely clearing your fields. If you look at what nature does in your area with forest fire, landslides,  blow down and now the pine beetle, it seems that clearcutting is natures way in your part of the world. Retaining too many trees will slow your spring thaw and very little of your natural growth will provide food.

  Your shelter belts could be edible berries and hugel beds. I would plant the Windward side and possibly all outer areas of vegetable beds with something tough like potatoes. One big advantage with potatoes is that deer don't eat them. I've hidden other tasty edibles within a potato patch and not been bothered by deer.

    If you are traveling the Alaska Highway in the summer check out the thriving market gardening community in Dawson Yukon Canada. Being inland they have warmer summer days but they managed to produce awesome crops in an area with plenty of permafrost. One guy I talked to cited the huge advantage of his compressed growing season. The almost continuous sun ripened his crops quickly so he could get back to his job in Vancouver by September. Also many of the common garden pests can't survive the extreme winter. He told me he had never seen a potato beetle or cabbage moth on any of his crops

    In driving through many areas of northern Canada I have witnessed huge agricultural successes and just as many failures. Those who have been successful have worked with nature. The failures have simply tried to move southern farming practices into unsuitable climates. If you're able to produce crops where most others fail then the entire market for summer vegetables is yours and premium prices can be commanded. If I were growing on the edge of where agriculture is possible I would concentrate on difficult to obtain and expensive vegetable crops along with potatoes, cabbage and other cold tolerant staples. They'll show up for the tomatoes and then buy 50 pounds of potatoes on the way out the door

  There's a book by Jared Diamond  called "Collapse". He's the guy who won the Pulitzer Prize for Guns germs and steel.  " Collapse" discusses various societies throughout history which have completely fallen apart and in some cases most or all of their citizens died. The chapter on Greenland and the ridiculous farming enterprise that developed there is a very instructive cautionary tale. The Greenland Norse were fixated on eating beef since that was the preferred food of the upper class. Sheep and goats are much more suited to northern climates but they were considered peasant food. This society devoted massive amounts of labor and resources to house cattle and feed them hay for nine months every year. During the summer when the men could have been hunting seal or walrus they put in huge amounts of time storing away hay for their skinny cattle. They also refused to eat fish which were abundant – some sort of phobia or religious taboo? And most importantly they refused to adopt any of the technology used by the Inuit people whom they had a hostile relationship with. The Inuit on the other hand were open to innovation and made good use of European metal and detachable harpoon head technology. Eventually the Greenland Norse died out completely. They had attempted to transplant a European farming society into an unsuitable climate and then stubbornly refused to adapt to the reality of the situation.

   

 
 
Tyler Ludens
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dale hodgins wrote:
    They had attempted to transplant a European farming society into an unsuitable climate and then stubbornly refused to adapt to the reality of the situation.  


Thank you very much for posting that example.  An historical event we can all learn from! 
 
                                                  
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dale hodgins wrote:

if you want to grow palm trees and watermelons a greenhouse will be absolutely necessary .

No, no such silliness. I do want greenhouses, but more for extended season than for daydreams. It's really not that difficult to heat up the ground and air, but unless I can grow electricity by planting light bulbs, providing for the light requirements of many temperate-climate plants can get either spendy or technologically very demanding. We're still working on this one. We hope to be able to develop a mixed-source off-grid electrical system, but that is very much in the searching stage.

    You'll probably find that flattish sections of south facing slopes...

The whole thing is pretty flat, very gently rolling, except the bank of the kettle pond which is about 30 feet high and has a sharp slope. I like the idea of early tilling to expose more soil to the spring sun, thanks. I don't know enough about hugelkultur to be able to say yes or no to your other suggestions, but I'm looking for information and will order some reading material very soon.

   Strategically piled rocks...

Wishful thinking. This area does not have big rocks. It does have lots and lots of little ones. It's a glacial outflow plain, left over from the last ice age. There are occasional orphan boulders (glacial isolates) that got dropped when the glaciers retreated, but if there are any on my land, they are deeply buried. Rocks can be had from the Chugach mountains which are not that far away, but the hauling costs are pretty prohibitive.


  I wouldn't worry too much about negative aspects of completely clearing your fields.

It breaks my heart to see all the dead spruce, but they will be put to good use. Because of crowding and shade, most of the birches are somewhat deformed with burls and interesting crotches. I do fine woodworking, and will be harvesting this "novelty" wood as we clear, for furniture building, bow and arrow making, and house trim. I believe that eventually I will leave the land better than I found it, which is really all anyone can hope for when using the earth's resources. 

 One big advantage with potatoes is that deer don't eat them. I've hidden other tasty edibles within a potato patch and not been bothered by deer.

I've noticed that the moose don't bother potatoes, but will kill for broccoli. Almost literally - they will tear up fences and cold frames to get to those.

 concentrate on difficult to obtain and expensive vegetable crops along with potatoes, cabbage and other cold tolerant staples. They'll show up for the tomatoes and then buy 50 pounds of potatoes on the way out the door

That's what we are working towards. It's working in the area just inland and north of Anchorage (the Matanuska-Susitna Valley) where wonderful cold-weather veggies grow almost effortlessly. However, that area is becoming a bedroom suburb of Anchorage, and losing farmland at an alarming rate. Sad. And foolish. That is part of why we are moving to an area with little agricultural tradition, a bit south of Anchorage on the Kenai Peninsula.

 The Greenland Norse were fixated on eating beef since that was the preferred food of the upper class. Sheep and goats are much more suited to northern climates but they were considered peasant food. This society devoted massive amounts of labor and resources to house cattle and feed them hay for nine months every year. During the summer when the men could have been hunting seal or walrus they put in huge amounts of time storing away hay for their skinny cattle. They also refused to eat fish which were abundant – some sort of phobia or religious taboo?

I lived in Iceland for almost ten years, and I can assure you that there is no West Norse taboo against eating fish in any form including fermented (yecch). The Greenland Icelanders (they were three or four generations removed from Norway) kept cows because they believed that they needed milk. Sheep and goats do produce milk, but cow's milk is a staple in Northern Europe. They didn't fish as much as they really needed to because of a lack of boats as much as anything else. Even Iceland was suffering from significant decline because of deforestation that  made them dependent on imported timber for boatbuilding. A viking without a boat is kind of like a biker without a motorcycle. And both the Icelandic and the Greenland Icelandic populations were pretty oblivious to the end of the Medieval Warming period and the onset of the Little Ice Age. This is not really a defense, but I hope a clarification. They kind of remind me of global warming naysayers.

And most importantly they refused to adopt any of the technology used by the Inuit people

Again, sort of yes, and sort of no. I remember seeing a seal gut anorak used by Westfjords fishermen in Iceland, that is virtually identical to the anoraks used by Alaskan Native fishermen when fishing from kayaks, down to the construction of the stitches that hold the seal gut strips together. Borrowed technology or parallel development, the Greenland colonists did have the technology to survive, but they needed a belief system that allowed them to deal with the increasingly devastating cold. They didn't have that, and paid for it dearly.

I think I've gotten a bit off the topic of this thread, though, and will stop here.  Thanks for your thoughtful answers.

   

   
 
Paulo Bessa
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dale hodgins wrote:
    They had attempted to transplant a European farming society into an unsuitable climate and then stubbornly refused to adapt to the reality of the situation.  


This is exactly what I feel here in Iceland.

Oh man, I try really hard but it seems so complicate to get a hold of a project here in Iceland. Somehow nature does way way way better than I ever seem to do.

This feeling of frustration I have here is probably the same that many settlers had when they first arrived in Iceland. At this moment I am struggling with darkness of the winter. No matter how many strong artificial lights I do, some seedlings and plants indoors die. They are just not in their native conditions. Same thing outdoors. Strong freezes before any snow. Frequent hard freezes and thaws. And this goes on for 9 months.

It is very easy for someone from outside of Iceland to suggest solutions, but when you are here, it comes down to practical challenges that are really difficult to overcome. Its a lot of effort and too little yields. I only do it, because its fun to do something terribly difficult and that few have tried.

As a vegetarian, my brain seems to think it is way easier to just go somewhere else warmer. Iceland is not very much for vegetarians or edible plant growing. It is way easier (and more natural) to base your diets in animals and fish here.

 
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