Berries, berries everywhere

Nancy Tarnai

Since Charlie Knight (aka “Mr. Agriculture”) has retired he could just sit back in his recliner, wrapped in his John Deere fleece blanket and take it easy.

But that would be so un-Charlie. “I’ve got too many hobbies,” Knight said. “That’s the reason I retired.” His latest retirement was from the post of northern region manager for the state Division of Agriculture.

Along with fishing and hunting, Knight, 64, is a gardener and beekeeper. His passion is cultivating wild berries, particularly lingonberries and blueberries. “There has been very little research on Alaska berries,” Knight said. “My goal is to domesticate them and find the best wild berries in Alaska and move them to my land gradually where they can be mechanically harvested.”

Charlie Knight
Photo by Nancy Tarnai
Knight enjoys retirement, but stays busy.

It’s a fairly daunting proposal. “There are 30 things to be done and I’ll never live long enough to do them,” Knight mused. He visits sites all around the Interior to determine where the best berries are. He judges how high off the ground the berries are and how many berries are in each cluster. “There are 31 different characteristics to look for in blueberries,” he said.

At Knight’s three acre farm near Eielson Air Force Base he has already accumulated 56 different varieties of berries and fruits, including gooseberries, red and black currants, sea berries, Saskatoon berries, cherries, high bush cranberries, chokecherries and rhubarb. In spite of all the work he has done to get to this point the moose seem to think the farm is for their dining enjoyment.

Raised on a 280-acre farm in Kansas and in the little town of Beeler, Knight was immersed in agriculture. He headed off to Kansas State University with a goal of learning how to be a farm manager. “Everyone was saying back then that by the year 2000 the world would be overpopulated and there would not be enough food,” Knight said. “I thought that the person who knew how to grow food would always get to eat.”

Knight earned a bachelor’s degree in agronomy and then a master’s, researching nitrate pollution of ground water from fertilizers. The day he finished his degree his advisor told him a former professor of Knight’s that he’d traveled all over Kansas with gathering corn samples was in Alaska and needed a technician.

Knight arrived at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1971 after marrying his college sweetheart, Becky. A couple of years later Knight was enticed back to Kansas because university salaries had not kept pace with inflation caused by the pipeline construction, but when the Delta Agricultural Project needed an agronomist, Knight said he “loaded up the trailer and came back.”

With 60,000 acres of farmland to develop, the project was a huge endeavor for the state and university. “It was an interesting time,” Knight said. “The pipeline was flowing full. There were all kinds of grant money.”

With some of those funds Knight helped start a university experiment farm in Delta Junction and managed research plots in Delta, Palmer and Fairbanks. He also began working on a doctorate studying the fate of urea fertilizer in sub-Arctic agricultural soils.

After earning his Ph.D., Knight began teaching and continued researching fertilizer rates, minimum tillage and evaluations of alternative crops for Alaska.

In 2001 he retired from UAF and joined the Division of Agriculture, helping farmers plan how to export products such as potatoes, peonies and willows, and working with the pest program.

Over the years, Knight noticed a trend toward smaller farms that grow high dollar niche crops. “We’re moving away from the large scale,” he said.

One of the most difficult challenges is simply defining agriculture, Knight said. “The borough, the state, the U.S.D.A. all have different definitions. Most say it’s the production of food and fiber.”

“But Alaska has a lot of screwy laws.”

Fairbanks will remain home for the Knights, who plan to travel a bit in the winter to visit their children Doug and Amy. “In the summertime I will play with my berries and swat the moose away from them,” Knight said.

This column is provided as a service by the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences and the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station.