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A century of agriculture in Alaska
by Ned Rozell


October 01, 2005

More than one hundred years ago, a man traveled north on a mission most people thought was ridiculous-to see if crops would grow in the frozen wasteland known as the Territory of Alaska.

That man, Charles C. Georgeson, was a special agent in charge of the United States Agricultural Experiment Stations. The secretary of agriculture charged Georgeson with the task of finding if crops and farm animals could survive in the mysterious land acquired just 21 years earlier from the Russians. When he landed at Sitka a century ago, Georgeson set in motion agricultural studies that are still carried on today at the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station.

jpg agriculture Fairbanks farm

Government experimental farm - Fairbanks, Alaska - August 1916
Forms part of: Frank and Frances Carpenter collection (Library of Congress).
Gift; Mrs. W. Chapin Huntington; 1951.
Photograph courtesty Library of Congress Prints and
Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

Georgeson was not a man easily discouraged. The experimental station site at which he landed in 1898 was in the middle of a swamp. Until he could clear and drain the land, he borrowed patches of land from Sitka settlers, as he explained in an interview in Sunset magazine in 1928:

"My plots were scattered all over the village and having insecure fences, or no fences at all, the local boys, cows, pigs and tame rabbits rollicked joyously though them," he said. "The seeds came up to become the playthings of diabolical ravens, who, with almost human malice, pulled up the little plants merely to inspect their other ends."

From this shaky start came the federal government's discovery that crops could indeed survive in the far north, some better than others. Georgeson quickly helped establish other experimental stations: a Kodiak station in 1908, one at Rampart on the Yukon River in 1900, and another at Copper Center in 1903. The final three stations, the only ones still remaining, were the Fairbanks station, which opened in 1906, the Matanuska farm station, established nine years later, and the Palmer Research Center, opened in 1948.

Federal interest in Alaska agriculture waned during World War I and the Great Depression. By 1932, the agricultural stations at Sitka, Kenai, Rampart, Kodiak and Copper Center had all closed despite some success (grain and potatoes did well at Rampart, the Sitka hybrid strawberry is among the hardiest of all breeds, and cattle and sheep thrived at the Kodiak station until the eruption of Katmai volcano in 1912 coated the pastures with up to 18 inches of ash).

jpg experimental farm

 Government experimental farm -Fairbanks, Alaska - August 1915
Forms part of: Frank and Frances Carpenter collection (Library of Congress).
Gift; Mrs. W. Chapin Huntington; 1951.
Photograph courtesty Library of Congress Prints and
Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

The Fairbanks and Matanuska stations have endured. Horticulturists and animal breeders today carry on the same type of experiments as Georgeson did 100 years ago, finding species of plants and animals capable of adapting to the far north's extremes in day length and temperature. From crossbreeding studies came first the Sitka hybrid strawberry, developed by Georgeson in 1907. Agriculture and Forestry Experiment Station researchers have bred a few dozen other varieties that thrive in the north, including the Alaska frostless potato (1970, in the Matanuska Valley), Yukon chief corn (1974, in Fairbanks), and the Toklat strawberry (1976, in Fairbanks).

In this world of highways and frequent flights from the Lower 48, Alaska-grown crops and animals account for only about 10 percent of what Alaskans consume. But the potential for more is here. Crops and animals do well in some areas of Alaska, such as the Tanana and Matanuska valleys. Someday it may not be cheaper to import foods from outside Alaska. Maybe then Georgeson's dream of Alaska as an agricultural state will be realized.


This column is provided as a public service by the Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks, in cooperation with the UAF research community. This article first appeared in 1998. Ned Rozell [] is a science writer at the institute.

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