From seed to harvest: students nourish university

By Catie Hall
On February 7, 2014

 

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." 

Other universities - like Cornell University in New York, Pennsylvania State University and Kentucky State University - are studying the benefits of high tunnels. However, there is no mention of student involvement, just PowerPoints that project the structures' benefits. 

Ogden sees something special in UNH's practices.

"One of the great advantages we have here though is the proximity of the farm land to the campus," Ogden said in his quiet Spaulding office. "It makes a huge difference in terms of being able to schedule a course within the regular course schedules and students can get on a bus and be there in five to 10 minutes. Not many other universities have their farm land so close to campus." 

Students seem to be aware of those so-called advantages. 

"I haven't heard of anywhere else that has a program like this," UNH senior Megan Letendre said.

UNH senior Chrissy Wolf said that class was one of her favorites.

"This class was extremely special to me and was definitely one of my favorite classes that I took during my four years at UNH," she said.

Wolf took the course during its first year and said she didn't mind experimenting with what worked and what didn't.

"I enjoyed being in the class the first year it was offered because it gave us an opportunity to make the program into something of our own," Wolf said in an email while she is away for the semester. "It was really exciting to be the pioneers of it and make changes to things that didn't work, as well as improve things we had success with."

Montgomery works with UNH's Slow Food chapter that promotes good, clean and fair food growth, consumption and production. Now, Montgomery represents on-campus Slow Food chapters, working as the National Coordinator for Slow Food Youth Network in the U.S. 

"Obviously I've done a lot of work with food," Montgomery said, having returned from an international Slow Food meeting in Italy, "but I've never gotten my hands dirty."

Montgomery was interested in the class as soon as he heard about it. 

"When I first heard about this class," Montgomery said, "I thought it was really cool because I was going to be able to get my hands dirty. ... I've always been connected to food, but I've never grown food." 

As of now, the class is not mandatory, but Ogden hopes that the class will be a cornerstone of the Sustainable Agriculture major. He will even be teaching SAFS 405, the prerequisite for "The Food Production Field Experience" this summer with the high tunnels. 

With the flourishing of the local food movement, Ogden said people want to have a connection to where their food comes from. That's where his class comes in. 

"These students are hopefully going to be ready to start operations, start businesses and be ready to deal with that new demand," Ogden said.

The business experience comes from the hands-on exercises in the high tunnels. But Ogden does not want to teach his students solely about burgeoning vegetables. 

"It takes horticultural skills to grow the vegetables," Ogden said, "but there are a lot of other skills that go into it. I teach them how to keep good records, how to use things like Excel to keep up with things like planting dates and seeding, harvesting ... also making maps of our plots." 

Among spreadsheets and maps, students also learn to utilize social media and blogging to reach out to the community Ogden said. The experiential course aims to provide students with skills for the vegetable market. 

"The first semester, I was not able to take it," Letendre said, sidestepping a hose in the high tunnels. "I was excited that they made arrangements so that I'd still be able to take both classes. I think it's really good to have the hands-on experience and actually get to work with the plants."

Though the class is marked as a 600-level course, students are not expected to be experts beforehand. That's why Letendre wanted to take the class.

 "I've had some gardening experience but I definitely wanted more," Letendre said.

Students have different reasons for wanting to the take the class. Some want to own and operate their own farms one day, Ogden said. Letendre wanted more experience, and for Montgomery, just signing up for the class granted a perspective as fresh as the vegetables he grows.

"When I finally registered and started the class, then it really occurred to me what we were actually doing," Montgomery said while he took a break in the unheated tunnel. "We're growing food for basically the student body."


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