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DogWood combines education, involvement in small family farm

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Posted: Sunday, June 17, 2012 12:43 am | Updated: 1:28 pm, Wed Apr 10, 2013.

In addition to putting fresh food on the table, Cheryl Wood sees the small-scale farm her family runs as a teaching tool for her five children and a source of community involvement.

DogWood Gardens in Ester has been providing community supported agriculture service since 2007, with 15 to 20 families receiving weekly allotments of produce in exchange for an up-front fee. “I like the CSA model,” Wood said. “The vegetables are pre-sold and we know they’re wanted.”

Wood hails from California, where she grew up eating a lot of fresh fruit. Her husband, Bill, is from Iowa but not from a farming background. Both Woods worked for the U.S. Forest Service and settled a homestead outside of Manley Hot Springs in 1994. The family returned to Fairbanks to make enough money to go back, but they are still awaiting that day.

“It’s his dream,” Wood said of her husband and the homestead lifestyle. “We still have it. We like to be connected to the land and grow things.” At the Manley property, the family was fairly close to self-sufficient but still had to come to town for flour and other supplies.

Their farming skills have been acquired through trial and error. Wood also credits friends at Calypso Farm and Ecology Center with inspiring and encouraging them.

At DogWood Gardens, the Woods grow everything they can for their family and for their CSA family. Bill works construction to provide income and helps out with the farm in his spare time.

As for Cheryl, she earned a degree in Native American studies with a minor in botany at the University of California, Davis. For her senior thesis, she catalogued plants outside of Nome. “I always loved plants,” she said.

The five Wood children help weed and care for the gardens. Teenager Kiana even runs the greenhouses and operates her own flower share business. “We all participate,” Wood said. “We encourage them to make wise choices with food. We are doing this for our kids. They learn a work ethic and participate in family life and learn how a business runs.”

On less than one acre dedicated to the garden, Wood is able to satisfy her CSA customers and to put up food for the winter. Last year she pickled 70 jars of beets, beans, carrots and other veggies and froze 54 bags of stir-fried vegetables. “It’s a fun way to preserve,” she said.

Wood professes a love for cooking and is always working vegetables into the mix. If she makes pizza, the sauce includes carrots, peppers and onions.

Her favorite part of the CSA business is sharing recipes and methods of food preservation with customers. Another specialty is finding ways to barter the homegrown food in exchange for services. In addition to medical and legal assistance, Wood has even had her house cleaned and the garden weeded.

While not certified as organic, the Woods follow organic principles, hauling in cow manure and using weeds in the compost piles. The chickens and ducks also nibble on weeds and provide manure for the soil. “We fight a fair amount of weeds,” Wood said. When aphids visit the greenhouse, Wood brings in ladybugs to fight the pests.

In fact, pests are the greatest challenge she faces. Moose are the worst destroyers; an 8-foot fence is a good deterrent, but if the garden gate is left open there is little hope for the vegetables. “It’s disheartening to see a big bite out of every cabbage,” Wood said. Voles and rabbits present their own threats.

Wood’s goals are to continue to develop the ground and expand the garden. “It’s surprising what you can do with land,” she said.

As for her secret to success, Wood said, “It’s just hard work and it’s a team effort. Many efforts make the load light.”

This column is provided as a service by the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences and the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station. Nancy Tarnai is the school and station’s public information officer. She can be reached at ntarnai@alaska.edu.

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