Registration for Southeast Alaska 2017 Farmers Summit Opens

Press Release

Share lessons learned and techniques for overcoming challenges of commercially growing food in Southeast Alaska; learn specific skills, technology, and research that contribute to commercial farming success and efficiency; connect with new and experienced farmers to build an inspiring network. 

Early bird registration is now open for the Southeast Alaska Farmers Summit 2017, the 2nd biennial summit designed to bring together experienced and aspiring commercial growers and support agencies. The Summit will be held February 24 through 26, 2017, at the Chilkat Center in Haines, Alaska. A discounted registration rate is available to attendees who register on or before January 21st, 2017. Travel and registration scholarships are available.

The conference will feature presentations from experienced commercial growers and support agencies, and topical discussions and panels to share resources and lessons learned. Speakers include Doug Collins, Extension Faculty and Soil Scientist with Washington State University’s Small Farms Program; Megan Talley, Farm Manager and Educator at Alaska Pacific University; and experienced Farmers from Southeast Alaska; among others. 

“This will be an opportunity for commercial growers of Southeast Alaska to learn from each other, find opportunities to collaborate, and build a network that can leverage everyone’s efforts,” said Lia Heifetz, Local Food Director for Southeast Alaska Watershed Coalition. “Many resources will be shared over the course of the weekend – from financial planning for small farms to innovative solutions for soil building, policy implications for agriculture, and much more.”

Other topics to be addressed at the Southeast Alaska Farmers Summit include:

  • On Farm Food Safety
  • Building your Farm Community
  • Planning for Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
  • The Future of Seed Saving in Alaska
  • High Tunnel Applications and Innovations
  • Electric and Walk-in Cold Storage for your Farm
  • Biomass Heated Greenhouses and Aquaponics
  • Per Foot Crop Values for Market Sales
  • Using Local Amendments to Improve Soil Quality
  • Fruit Trees and Grafting Techniques
  • Policy and Initiatives
  • Building a Future of Farming with Internships and Education
  • Business Planning and Farm Finances

For more information and to register for the conference please visit: http://www.alaskawatershedcoalition.org/safs2017/

Back to School: Swapping Eggrolls for Rainbow Chard

Written by Bethany Sonsini Goodrich for Edible Alaska Magazine

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Across the country cafeteria trays aren’t often admired for their nutrition, freshness, or taste. In rural southeast Alaska, however, a dedicated school district and its greenhouse program are challenging that notion, while invigorating local economies, growing entrepreneurs, and gratifying taste buds.

Prince of Wales Island rests at the southernmost end of Alaska’s panhandle. The communities that make up this island are isolated, connected by seemingly endless miles of winding roads. The Southeast Island School District (SISD) is the major school district on Prince of Wales. It includes nine schools in unique communities from the small Haida village of Kasaan to old logging camps like Coffman Cove. All of these communities share some key challenges. Only one of them has a grocery store of considerable size, and the majority of the food is barged in. By the time these costly imported vegetables hit family plates, they are often wilted and unappetizing. Residents are in search of long-term economic solutions.

As in many small schools across the state, cafeteria lunches also lack crunch. “Small schools don’t have full time cooks and use mostly warming ovens to make eggrolls and burritos,” says Lauren Burch, the superintendent for Southeast Island School District on Prince of Wales Island. “That’s not what we should be feeding our kids.”

Those heat-and-serve lunches are not only uninspiring, they are costly too. “In my school district I lose roughly $100,000 a year even having a food program at all, and that’s gotta come from somewhere,” Burch says. The state’s purse strings aren’t loosening any time soon. Alaskans are witnessing the slicing and dicing of many key programs, including the whittling away of school funding. “State funding right now is traumatizing,” he admits.

But Burch—along with teachers, students, administrators, and community members of Southeast Island School District—is stepping up to face these challenges with gusto. What started with a few raised garden beds and a heat recovery system in one school has since grown into an island-wide phenomena. Kasaan, Naukati Bay, Thorne Bay and Coffman Cove have all replaced costly diesel generators with wood boiler systems and are using local wood to heat schools, greenhouses, and businesses. They are growing their own food, freshening up those lunch trays, and supporting the local economy as they revolutionize district thinking. This inspiring cohort is accomplishing all of this while giving the next generation of Alaska’s leaders a mouth-watering hands-on education.

So, how does it work? Let’s take a tour.

powgreenhouse_-52AQUAPONICS: FROM FISH TO FRESH VEGGIES
“Everything we do starts with those fish. All we have to do is feed them. We use their feces throughout the system as nutrients. We use the poop to grow the plants, in short speak,” explains Ieshia Searle. Ieshia is a senior at Thorne Bay High School and has been involved in the greenhouse since its’ inception.

Eager goldfish crowd the window of a big central tank as Ieshia sprinkles a bit of fish food from above. A pump moves nutrient rich water from this tank through colonies of bacteria that filter the solid waste and convert fish feces into a form of nitrogen the plants can use. The water is then funneled into a series of pools where rafts of lettuce float beneath energy efficient LED lights. Different varieties of lettuce reach down into the water, absorbing nutrients while filtering and cleaning the pool. Ieshia pulls up a raft of butter lettuce, carefully inspecting the long spindly roots. “These are beautiful roots!” she declares. “Normally we harvest once a week, if not more, depending how our crops turn out. We actually stay pretty busy at the Thorne Bay greenhouse.”

Over in Coffman Cove, the largest and most impressive of the school greenhouses is over 6,000 square feet. At full capacity Coffman Cove will be churning out 800 heads of lettuce a week. That’s a lot of greens.

But, greens aren’t all that these greenhouses produce. Water continues to move through the aquaponics system into a series of beds containing a very fine matrix material made of coconut husks, which fully filters the water. It then returns to the fish and the loop continues, nourishing everything from turnips and tomatoes to green onions and basil. The vegetables are packaged by students, served in school lunches, and delivered and sold to shops where they reach families throughout Prince of Wales.

INTEGRATED LEARNING: GROUNDING THE ‘COMMON CORE’
All four greenhouses are using adaptations of an aquaponics system. Originally, Thorne Bay tested hydroponics, but made the switch to aquaponics in order to diversify their crops and offer students more integrated learning opportunities. “We wanted to dive more into the process. Hydroponics felt like a mystery machine where you pumped chemicals in and lettuce came out,” says Megan Fitzpatrick, the SISD science teacher. “Aquaponics is more of a natural ecosystem approach to growing.” She is able to teach the nitrogen cycle, soil chemistry, plant biology and more. Students are also able to craft experiments. “It’s more engaging. There is a lot of flexibility,” Fitzpatrick explains.

powgreenhouse_-8The greenhouse does not replace the curriculum, it brings it to life. Students spend one hour of class time each day working with the program and experiential learning opportunities abound—for more than just chemistry and the life sciences. Students across the island are investigating ways to make their greenhouse programs as self-sustaining as possible, while learning how to conduct feasibility studies, identify niche markets, gauge supply and demand, and brand their products. They are also looking at ways to improve the system, exploring opportunities for saving energy while increasing food production.

“Working at this greenhouse, I’ve been able to learn how to grow food while also being able to learn how to manage a business and keep it running without having to depend on the school district. At the start, we had the school district buying the seeds and the supplies that we needed, but now we are able to pay them back and make a profit,” Ieshia asserts with pride.

The four greenhouses are part of a larger program that also includes raising poultry, growing apples, making and selling tortillas and pizza dough, and a student-run restaurant and storefront. This engaging combination of projects creates opportunities for teaching business skills, life skills, employment skills and responsibility in a meaningful and hands-on way. “When kids first started here they were so shy and didn’t want to talk about the greenhouse,” says Fitzpatrick. “Now, so many people come by and visit the greenhouse from the community and even the lieutenant governor has stopped by. Kids are learning public speaking skills,” she says. “When students are engaged, they retain and when they retain they are more confident.”

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AN IMPACT YOU CAN TASTE
Rural Alaska is hungry for fresh food and innovation. “Our schools absolutely are the heartbeat of the community and play a vital role in the sustainability of these communities,” attests Colter Barnes, the school greenhouse manager on the island. Southeast Island School District is looking at their students as powerful assets for building more resilient communities, supporting the local economy, and addressing food system challenges, while receiving a top-notch education.

“I think the progressive districts are out there saying, how can we do more with less funding, how can we generate revenue? I have a thousand students in my building, how can I give them real learning opportunities that are connected to standards, their diploma, their interests, and strengthens our community, but also generates revenue. There is so much you can do with kids, they want to engage,” Barnes says.

“We need to teach kids healthy eating skills. They need to use knives to cut their food, enough of these heat-and-serve open boxes,” adds Megan Fitzpatrick. “I saw these kids when they first started in the greenhouse. They weren’t eating the stuff and now they’re fighting over it. Seeing kids recognize the healthy benefits of eating fresh vegetables and recognizing that they can do this at home, that is a life skill they can carry on through their adult life. That to me is the most rewarding.”

Back at the school cafeteria, the rewards keep on growing as more and more students swap egg rolls for rainbow chard.

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Annual Retreat Helps Chart Path Forward for Partnership

By Alana Peterson

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One key element to a successful partnership is communication. In the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, our partner organizations model deliberate communication that results in action. We meet on a monthly basis through Google+ video hangouts where we share ideas and information to strengthen our collaborative efforts. We also participate in daily dialogue on our Google+ community page. Our blog posts, emails, phone calls, and community visits all contribute to a network of individuals and organizations that are highly collaborative, sharing resources, and learning from each other along the way. Finally, we commit to communicating through in-person visits as frequently as possible and commit to two full partnership meetings twice a year (once in fall and once in spring).

This year’s autumn retreat took place in Hoonah, Alaska from October 3-7th. We used this time to develop year-long work plans for our individual and collective projects, learn about projects in Hoonah, and strategize ways to grow and strengthen the partnership in 2017.

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Our retreat included a site visit to the new deep water dock and Icy Strait Point, a cruise ship destination that includes adventure options, a zip line, restaurants, a museum and shops. The group was not only inspired by the expansive project that is unique to see in a small SE village, but was also excited to learn about how cultural values and the community have been a priority through the development and implementation of the tourism site. Our group was led by a local Huna Totem shareholder, Brittany who started working at ISP as a ticket taker, and has moved up in the ranks to now working administrative functions in the office. It was clear she has pride in her work, and impressed our entire group in her knowledge and ability to answer all of our questions. We learned that decisions at ISP are made based on a filter of authenticity. Icy Strait Point was built to be as true to the culture and community it represents as possible.

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We also spent time learning about the Hoonah Native Forest Partnership, a powerful new model for land management in SE Alaska.

The retreat also included a day-long workshop for community engagement. The workshop, led by Element Agency, gave each partner new skills and tools to plan successful community events such as meetings, workshops, etc. We put the new tools to use by planning and facilitating a community meeting in Hoonah. The goal of the community meeting was to introduce our partnership and outline the current projects in Hoonah. We then opened up discussion to the participants to learn about priority projects that the community has identified, and support those efforts through the SSP network. The meeting concluded with a beautiful performance from the Mt. Fairweather dancers who also prepared a tasty dinner for the event.

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Other outcomes of this years retreat included a review of 13 successes from last year’s projects. Between all SSP partners, over 50 projects are taking place in 2017. A full list of those projects can be viewed by clicking here. The partners also dedicated four hours to identifying four priority areas to strengthen the SSP in 2017, they include:

(1) Promote the SSP collective impact model and Triple Bottom Line approach to economic development in each of our communities through direct outreach.

(2) Catalysts & Partners will engage the community, new partners and new demographics to increase community ownership of the Sustainable Southeast Partnership.

(3)  All partners will work towards making SSP self-sustaining by improving and implementing our metrics to communicate success for potential funders and by building capacity to fundraise within partner organizations (this includes capacity building activities).

(4)  All partners will demonstrate success in projects this year through strategizing community outreach through each communications output and achieving one clear project success in each community this year.

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For each of these four initiatives, each participant wrote down one or two actionable steps they will take as individuals this year to move the partnership forward on each initiative. Though tired and drained from a long week of collaborative work, each partner left Hoonah reinvigorated and excited about the year of work ahead.

Building a Better Backyard: Locals Inventory Alaska’s Young Growth

Written for Alaska’s Capital City Weekly

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Southeast Alaskans are not shy around the forest. Our rural communities are surrounded by the largest remaining temperate rainforest on earth. We build homes and businesses with the natural resources those lands provide. Every summer, Alaskans are reminded that the majority of the fish that feed our world-renowned salmon industry begin their lives among these trees. We escape into the forest and disappear between the spruce and hemlock in pursuit of Sitka black-tailed deer or wild mushrooms. We are forest people, and a coalition of land managers across the region are collaborating to ensure that the people who help manage these forests are the same people who call these lands their backyard.

Harrison Voegeli is one such man. “Seeing that locals are out in the forest hunting — they are the ones out in the forest cutting their firewood and getting trees for their totems — it’s very important to have the participation of locals,” Voegeli said. Voegeli is one of ten people who are spending their workdays inspecting the forests on Prince of Wales Island.

“At the moment, the timber industry is geared toward cutting down old trees. Trees that have been alive for several hundred years to in some cases, several thousand years. These older trees have older, denser and harder wood than young trees, but now there is a push to move away from cutting these old forests because the health of our forest is tied to these old growth stands,” explained Voegeli. “We want to start cutting trees that are younger than 150 years but not all are ready to be logged yet. So what we are doing is going out and determining how long it will take until they are ready.”

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The crew are measuring trees, recording forest stand makeup and collecting a suite of data that is helping land managers paint a more detailed picture of our young growth forests. The inventory was initiated through an agreement between the State of Alaska and the USDA Forest Service’s State and Private Forestry arm earlier this year. The goal is to collect valuable forest data to aid Southeast’s transition to a predominantly young-growth timber industry. It’s also an opportunity to develop a local workforce.

Jason Anderson is the Deputy Forest Supervisor for the Tongass National Forest. “As we went out to try and understand what’s going in that older young growth timber on the forest, the need to capture that data was a good fit for figuring out how the work of that data collection could also benefit local communities who are interested in working in the natural resource field,” said Anderson.

The crew conduclayton_1-1cting the inventory come from a range of backgrounds. “Clayton Smally is kind of a local legend. He’s 57 now and he had been logging here since he was 14,” Voegeli said. “A couple of years ago he decided he was done with logging and wanted to see a different side, now of conservation. You can definitely teach an old dog new tricks!”

Then there’s Brent O’Conner, a former manager at Papa’s Pizza who wanted to try his hands at an outdoor job. Some have kids; one is a forester.

This group attended an academy in the spring that prepared them for careers in local forestry. This two-week field course was facilitated by Haa Aani, LLC (a subsidiary of Sealaska that is dedicated to local economic development) Kai Environmental, the United States Forest Service and the State of Alaska.

“Working with our partners, we put together the Forest Academy and found that we have an interested group of people who want to participate in that work and learn more about the forest while producing really valuable data that helps us manage those lands into the future,” said Anderson.

“Having a local workforce that understands forest dynamics rather than having the Forest Service, for example, hiring someone to come up from Kentucky for the summer to look at trees and after that they leave, is really really good. It brings the local community in to be a part of the process where they are able to make decisions and be informed and inform their fellows about what’s going on in the forest, and how their lands are being managed,” Voegeli said.

The academy was the collaborative effort of multiple land managers to train a skilled local workforce that could be called upon for work on both private and public lands. All eight of those who attended the academy were offered work on Prince of Wales.

“My sense is that all land managers are motivated by similar interests: a skilled workforce that they can count on to do work year after year to support the forest industry, not just logging but all activities that occur in forest landscapes,” Anderson said. “And these jobs will always be stable. I think the public will always expect goods and services from their lands — both public and private…. Individuals who already live here and love it have great employment potential and that is what are seeing so far.”

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There are plans to orchestrate a second Academy in the next several months that would invite interested folks from beyond Prince of Wales to get professional development experience catered to work in Southeast Alaska’s forests. For more information check www.sustainablesoutheast.net or contact Alana Peterson, the Program Director for the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, Haa Aaani LLC directly at 907-747-3132 or Alana.Peterson@sealaska.com.

Yakutat Travels to DC to Discuss Broadband

Written by Paul Harding

The mission of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition (SHLBC) is to promote public policies which improve the broadband capabilities of schools, libraries, healthcare providers, other anchor institutions and their surrounding communities.

Trip Goals
The purpose of attending the 2016 SHLB conference was multi-fold:
1) To be better acquainted with the new E-Rate program rules, regulations, and federal guidelines.
2) To connect with FCC advisors and attorneys in order to better facilitate the current fiber optic project in Yakutat.
3) To develop a network of business and advisory peers that can assist in the complicated process of navigating ‘E-Rate waters’.
4) To promote the current fiber optic project in Yakutat in order to facilitate the RFI and RFP process.
5) To better assess the fiber optic project master plan for Yakutat by means of openly discussing Yakutat’s special geographic and financial hurdles with business leaders, FCC Advisors, FCC attorneys, and technical administrators.
6) To better understand all the nuances of the procurement process within the E-Rate, USAC and FCC arena.

Workshops attended

While there were a number of plenary sessions and workshops offered during this conference, it was the workshops that yielded the majority of useful information. As such, I will only highlight some of the more interesting and notable issues that came up.

E-Rate and Fiber Build-Out workshop

This particular workshop was an amazing insight into USAC’s development and operationalization of the E-Rate process in toto. Everything from how to issue an RFP, evaluating competing bids, and structuring one’s application to maximize the chance for approval was covered in depth. This particular workshop was quite valuable as the lead writer of the E-Rate rules and regulations, Chas Eberle (Attorney Advisor, FCC), was present and available for questions. Also on the board was Joe Freddoso (Advisor to USAC).

Of the many topics covered, the primary tenets of what I found to be of interest revolved around the basic notions of:
• Cost defensibility
• Cost efficacy as it intersects with functionality
• Value to/for a community vs. cost effectiveness
• Cost reasonableness vs. a quality build, all against the backdrop of the notion of ‘community benefit’ and ‘projected community growth’.

Financing and Fiber Construction Build vs. Buy: What are we in for once we ask this question?

The primary discussion during this workshop centered on ‘cost value vs. community benefit’. E-Rate’s central focus in bringing fiber to communities is the ‘lowest possible cost’, and this issue came up many times during this workshop. And while there was much discussion regarding what community benefit was derived from narrowly defining the cost allocation of a project, the usual response from the board was, “those are the rules.” Although seemingly unhelpful, this sort of response generated yet more discussion regarding the FCC guidelines for the E-Rate program such that the principle attorneys later remarked that they would need to revisit some of the more restrictive guidelines and review their utility. Despite the overwhelming time spent on this issue, there was time allotted for discussing the different types of builds that are permissible through E-Rate: dark vs. lit, self-provisioned vs. leased, priority 1 vs. priority 2.

Ask an E-Rate Attorney

Given the previous discussions that had be circulating in previous workshops, the clear point of contention for most attendees was the issue of cost efficacy vs. community value. While much of the time was spent attempting to pick apart E-rate’s cost allocation process by getting FCC advisors and USAC attorneys to voice an explicit equation by which to determine the intersection of community value and cost reasonableness, ultimately USAC attorneys begrudgingly ceded that there must be a cost defensibility. When questioned further on the meaning of this phrase, one of the attorneys simply stated that the cost of any project must be able to be defended given the number of anchor organizations and people served. It was later decided amongst attendees that your ability to argue a case need merely be par with the cost of the project and given the how many organization and people are served.

Discussion

Following the SHLB conference, I was able to spend about an hour with Mr. Freddoso (Advisor to USAC), Kela Halfmann (E-Rate Coordinator, SERRC), and John Harrington (CEO of Funds for Learning). During this time I was able to discuss the current geological and fiscal hurdles that Yakutat faces and ask how we might best work around/through some of these issues given the parameters of the E-Rate program guidelines. In Addition, we discussed additional funding through organizations that support the development of telecommunications infrastructure – i.e., USDA, Health Connect Fund, Broadband USA, and Community Connect. There was also some discussion regarding the master plan for the fiber optic project in Yakutat and plentiful reasons I ought to consider narrowing the scope of the project to better ensure our success in bringing fiber to the community.

I also spent much time with talking with individuals from the FCC, USAC and SERRC regarding the procurement process and the necessary strategies for getting companies to come to the table and bid on an RFP. There was also much discussion on whether or not a pre-meeting with potential builders/vendors could yield any results in conjunction with either an RFI or RFP.

I was lucky enough to garner the attention of a publicist who had much advice for me regarding the RFP process. We discussed at length one of the on-going problems that Yakutat tends to have given the small size of our town and the limited number of vendors we have in town as a result of our population: monopolies. A number of promising suggestions were made on how to better navigate the RFP process on a project of this magnitude such that we are able to ensure we find ourselves with very few bids

Conclusion

After having discussed the logistical issues that Yakutat is facing in the technological, geographic and economic arenas, I have decided to modify the fiber optic master plan to better demonstrate an understanding of the complexities that this project faces. As such, I will immediately dissolve the current consortium between Hoonah, Yakutat, Pelican and Gustavus. I will, then, set my focus to creating a consortium between CBY, YTT, the school, clinic and, potentially, a library. Following this, I will prepare and submit an RFI that will attempt to yield information on Yakutat’s current distance from the pre-existing fiber line, cost for connecting to said fiber line (the build), and cost of service. Additionally, given the structure of the new consortium which will now include in-eligible E-rate participants, I will have E-rate determine what percentage of the project they will fund. With this information in hand I can better determine what amount of monies will be required to satisfy the balance of this project. With this new configuration, the fiber plan will more adequately fit the cost reasonableness of a project of this size and will ensure our success during the E-Rate funding process.

Salvage to Song

Written for Alaska’s Capital City Weekly 

Brent Cole demonstrates soundboard production in his wood shop.

Brent Cole demonstrates soundboard production in his wood shop.

With Folkfest happening this week, Southeast Alaskans will be swinging, dancing and celebrating the changing seasons. If you are lucky enough to attend, keep your ears on the mandolins, acoustic guitars and other stringed instruments. The woods for many of these instruments begin their lives as the ancient giants of our beloved forest.

Alaska Specialty Woods (ASW), co-owned by Brent and Annette Cole, is the largest producer of soundboards in the state. Soundboards are the wood responsible for producing the iconic sounds of many music instruments. In 2014, I visited with Brent and Annette Cole and toured their operation near Craig on Prince of Wales Island. In the spirit of Folkfest, I called up the couple to hear about business and learn more about the soundboards they produce from tonewood on the Tongass National Forest.

Brent founded ASW in 1995 as a family-operated business with a single saw in hand. Annette emphasized the business’ humble and family oriented beginnings.

“The kids were really young and they would go out with backpacks with Brent and pack a wood block, whatever they could handle in their backpack, to take home,” she said.

Brent and Annette Cole stand inside their original shop. Since May of 2015, the couple have begun production in their new facility, where drying, processing and storage can happen under one roof. Photo Bethany Goodrich, 2014.

Brent and Annette Cole stand inside their original shop. Since May of 2015, the couple have begun production in their new facility, where drying, processing and storage can happen under one roof. Photo Bethany Goodrich, 2014.

When I visited in 2014, the family was churning out soundboards from a series of bucolic wood sheds caked in sawdust and jam-packed with wood in all directions. As of May last year, Alaska Specialty Woods grew to include a shiny new facility where processing, drying and storing can all happen under one roof. If they were operating at 100 percent, Brent estimates the family business could produce close to ten thousand soundboards a month. Currently, they are operating at about 20 percent due to a slump in demand for mid-range guitars.

“We produce for all guitar types, all pianos, and then things like double basses, bouzoukis, ouds, harps, mandolins and others,” he said. Sales of guitar tops may be down from previous years, but other instrument sales are on the upswing. “We have seen things pick up with custom builders of ukuleles lately. Traditionally, ukuleles have used back, sides and top wood made of the same wood, and now they migrated more to using hard woods for the back and sides, like guitars, but have gone to a softwood for the soundboard, and people are liking the sound an awful lot, and they are selling,” he said.

So what makes a good sound board? Sitka spruce is the Adonis of tonewood, which is why Brent’s products are coveted by everyone from big names like Gibson to independent instrument crafters from New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and other places as well.

“The whole music world comes here for our spruce. Because of our geography, this is heaven for Sitka spruce, which is the premier tonewood in the world right now because of its availability and because of its tight rings, stiffness, weight ratio and its fine texture due to it being old-growth. There is nowhere else in the world that produces this type of timber anymore, and when the old growth is gone, we won’t have it either,” Brent said.

Brent and Annette are proud stewards for the sustainable management of our old-growth forests. The family salvages 100 percent of the wood it uses to produce soundboards from existing dead trees. The Coles search the forest for appropriate timber and apply for the necessary sale with the US Forest Service. The Forest Service then refers to a long list of requirements before administering the sale. Brent and Annette sometimes even source wood from logs used on abandoned float houses or old logging bridges. This mantra of salvage, reuse and waste reduction is pivotal to Brent in both his business and personal life.

“All through my life as a young adult and an adult, I have focused on utilization and not letting stuff go to waste — not our resources, not our groceries, not leaving the lights on — as best as I can. As far as the timber acquisitions and how it relates, it goes back to conserving and responsible use. I know this timber resource, though it is renewable, the particular materials necessary for producing soundboards is not renewable in that it takes an old-growth habitat to produce what we have for the fine texture. This salvage that we do, is it wasteful if it is part of the environment? I don’t know that that wood is going to ‘waste’ if left in the forest. But, I like to see it get used and if it’s used to put groceries on a family’s table then, I think that’s a good thing.”

Once an ancient spruce is adopted by the Coles, very little goes to waste. Every possible space on their property is crammed with boards and the small offcuts are used to make deer calls or even jewelry. One tree in particular is being coveted by Alaska Specialty Woods, with not a single inch unused: when excavating their property to build the new facility, Brent stumbled on an old spruce buried twenty feet under the earth during a landslide.

“We thought this was waste wood at first. But once exposed to the air, the blonde wood began to change to a brilliant blue gray,” he said. Intrigued, they sent a sample off to be carbon dated. “It’s 2800 years old, plus or minus thirty years,” Annette said. The tonewood is sold on their website under the “Ancient Sitka Line.” “There’s a lot of history recorded in our boards. Every one of those growth lines is a year, and we aren’t going to use anything less than a 300-year-old tree to get a sound board out of,” Brent said.

Brent and Annette Cole unearthed a spruce while building a new facility for their company. Once exposed to the air the blonde wood began to turn a brilliant blue. They sent a sample off to be carbon dated, and it turns out the tree is about 2800 years old. Alaska Specialty Woods sells this wood in their "Ancient Sitka Line." Photo Bethany Goodrich, 2014.

Brent and Annette Cole unearthed a spruce while building a new facility for their company. Once exposed to the air the blonde wood began to turn a brilliant blue. They sent a sample off to be carbon dated, and it turns out the tree is about 2800 years old. Alaska Specialty Woods sells this wood in their “Ancient Sitka Line.” Photo Bethany Goodrich, 2014.

So how likely is it that the guitars you hear during Folkfest have a bit of Southeast in their structure? I asked Brent to estimate what percentage of string instruments use Sitka Spruce from the Southeast.

“For the world market of instruments, boy, when we start getting into bowed instruments then it’s a different story because violins and viola and cellos use European spruce from Italy and Switzerland and Germany. But, in the acoustic market I would say the Sitka Spruce makes up at least 70 or 80 percent of the world market of acoustic soundboard production, including pianos. Maybe even 90 percent; it’s just huge.”

To learn more about Alaska Specialty Woods check out http://alaskawoods.com.

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