Experimental farm branches out

Posted: Thursday, August 13, 2009

PALMER - The Matanuska Experiment Farm is evolving into more than the state's prominent agricultural research conglomerate.

University of Anchorage Fairbanks officials representing its School of Natural Resources met with state and Valley dignitaries recently to launch the Palmer Center for Sustainable Living. Along with renaming the experiment farm, the Palmer campus will expand to host a more broad range of research, from bio-crops to green building to clean energy production, said Carol E. Lewis, dean of the School of Natural Resources and director of the school's Agriculture and Forest Experiment Station.

"The idea is to expand to a broader spectrum," she said. "We hope to offer, through the school, the new profile of agriculture in the United States."

That profile includes more crop specialization to create biofuels, energy efficient building techniques and reinventing the place of agriculture in semi-suburban areas, which is what the Valley is becoming.

"The vision is diversified and sustainable use of our natural resources for food security, for energy security," she said.

To help, Lewis said, a new study is under way to help determine just how much Alaska depends on the Lower 48 for its food supply. A common figure that's been used is 95 percent, but Lewis said that figure is 20 years old and may not be a realistic estimate of today's situation.

One extension of agriculture the Palmer Center for Sustainable Living could be developing is a biomass energy and research lab, said Norm Harris, professor of range management for UAF. As an example, Harris said researchers are working with wood products as a renewable source for hydrocarbons. One application could be to use wood to create plastics instead of petroleum.

"Biomass energy is a big part of what we're doing," he said. "This is a unique example, because it takes wood, breaks it down to its hydrocarbons, and it's a renewable source to make plastics and other products."

Researchers now can break wood down into a liquid product, he said.

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