From seed to harvest: students nourish university
Published: Friday, February 7, 2014
Updated: Friday, February 7, 2014 03:02
For most farmers in New England, the growing season from May to September means that winter is dormant. But for University of New Hampshire students, it’s the peak season.
On Tuesdays at 1:10 p.m., class is held in a blue-walled room near the dairy barn offices. Nalgene water bottles decorated with stickers sit on the table. The smell of afternoon coffee rises just enough to out-do the stale smell of cow pee. Lecturer Andrew Ogden stands at the whiteboard, commanding everyone’s attention with his tall stature and deep voice.
Ogden prodded the 16 students present on what it takes for a seed to germinate. Moisture, heat and “one more big one – that all living things need.”
“Love,” one guy said, and the room erupted in laughter.
Having just celebrated its first year, the two-semester course “The Food Production Field Experience” or colloquially, “Farm to You N.H.,” (SAFS 679 and 680) is in the UNH College of Life Sciences and Agriculture. The autumn and spring course not only offers chances for students to learn about farming in a hands-on manner, but harvested vegetables are sold in UNH’s Dairy Bar.
“We produce all of their salad greens, their tomatoes when they’re in season, but now we’re actually looking to produce more for the dining halls, like Holloway,” UNH senior Spencer Montgomery said. Montgomery is currently enrolled in the spring course.
Ogden said that UNH’s Dining Director Jon Plodzik was fundamental in getting the program started.
“We are very proud of our efforts to source as much as possible from local growers and vendors,” Plodzik said in an email. “Getting greens from campus is a great initiative with our partner, [College of Life Sciences and Agriculture], that benefits all of us from an educational and product perspective.”
In New Hampshire, people often dread winter. It means blankets of snow, whistling winds, bursting pipes and hypothermia. Despite possible problems and freezing temperatures, students still want to grow vegetables.
“We had students saying, ‘Hey, we’re getting good theory, but we want more hands-on. We want to get our hands dirty,’” Ogden said. “So, problem: Here, the growing season is primarily from May till September if you’re just growing outdoors. So that period is when students aren’t really here. In order to get around all this, we decided to go the route of using high tunnels.”
The idea is far from cutting-edge. Ogden said the idea came from Otho Wells, a retired UNH plant biology professor, who brought the idea over from Europe. According to the New Hampshire Farms Network website, Wells “pioneered high-tunnel technology at UNH at the N.H. Agricultural Experiment Station’s Woodman Horticultural Research Farm in Durham, beginning in the late 1980s.”
As Ogden explained, the high tunnels are simplified greenhouses. They sit next to UNH’s dairy barn. Instead of an established floor with benches for plants to flourish on, the high tunnel grounds are soil. Enter through the wooden door and see that red, purple and green vegetables are harvested in crafted soil columns in the ground.
Students enrolled this semester work in both the heated and unheated high tunnels. They push metal tools on top of the soil in order to plant seeds. At different stations in the heated tunnel, you can hear the sound of hose water splashing soil and ground.
When it comes to reaching into the soil to crush clumps of dirt, the students aren’t shy. Montgomery pushes into the dirt and extracts a carrot that he shares with other students. The bite into the carrot is crunchy, moist and flavorful.
All of this work produces food that goes to the Dairy Bar. Any excess gets sent to Holloway Commons. Out of the two high tunnels, the heated tunnel is used to grow salad mix and greens.
“In our unheated tunnel we grow cold, hearty crops like spinach, carrots, beets, radishes, onions,” Ogden said, “and those we keep growing throughout the winter without extra heat.”