Academic Roots

Wednesday, December 5, 2012
Bookmark and Share

Even as a hard frost wilts the cover grass surrounding the two new high tunnels at the University of New Hampshire (UNH), buttery heads of Boston Bibb lettuce and colorful Easter Egg radishes continue to thrive inside. These are just two of the crops that students in the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems (SAFS) major are growing in farm-to-fork experiential courses at the College of Life Sciences and Agriculture (COLSA). In addition to this hands-on learning, the high tunnels provide opportunities for a plethora of related faculty and student research.

The high tunnels, designed for maximum production and efficiency, are located on the University’s agricultural land and operated by the New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station (NHAES). The two greenhouse-style structures were constructed and installed by long time UNH collaborator Ed Person of Ledgewood Farm in Moultonborough. The construction of the high tunnels represents the first phase in the formation of a broader multi-trophic research and teaching farm by NHAES and COLSA. At this early stage, the existing clay-rich topsoil has been augmented by compost from Kingman Farm and enriched by manure from the adjacent Fairchild Dairy Teaching and Research Center. This medium is producing a range of tender greens to winter-hardy crops appropriate for the seasons.

During the third week in November, an initial harvest of Green Leaf, Green and Red Boston Bibb, and Romaine lettuces provided a bounty of fresh greens for the Dairy Bar restaurant, a public venture of UNH’s Dining Services. In addition, the restaurant received bushels of student-grown Red Russian Kale, arugula, Tatsoi, Red Mustard, Mizuna, spinach, beet greens, and a colorful array of Easter Egg Radishes. A literal hop, skip, and a jump away, this on-campus high tunnel production has taken the restaurant’s mission to provide local, healthy, and sustainable food to a whole new level.

“COLSA responded to increased student demand for hands-on education in sustainable horticulture with two brand new courses called the Food Production Field Experience Parts One and Two,” says COLSA SAFS Lecturer Andrew Ogden. “Students learn in an experiential fashion about all aspects of running a sustainable farming operation from crop planning, crop production methods, post-harvest practices, marketing, social media promotion, special event planning and execution, and business management.” With the supervision and support from their instructors, students in the Food Production Field Experience course will delve into the real-world responsibilities of providing the customer, in this case the Dairy Bar and Dining Services, with top quality produce in a timely and consistent fashion.

This endeavor, originally an academic and research initiative with immediate practical applications, has become a valuable food production and funding partnership between COLSA, NHAES, and Dining Services. COLSA Dean Jon Wraith and UNH Dining have been discussing opportunities for collaboration for some time, and when the college’s goal of creating the experiential student-focused learning and discovery endeavor was brought to Dining, they enthusiastically agreed to become key partners. 

The project is managed by Ogden in concert with NHAES farm staff.  The NHAES covered Ogden’s summer salary this year to focus on the project, has shared startup and construction costs with Dining, and helps cover labor and supplies. A grant from the Tuttle Foundation augmented start-up costs and continues to support a portion of Ogden’s teaching at the University.

Dining contributed substantially to start-up costs, including those of the structures, labor and additional aspects of getting the operation off the ground.  The bulk of ongoing costs will be covered from COLSA teaching and NHAES research funds, with Dining also providing some labor and related costs in return for the produce. This kind of partnership at the University is another example of achieving far-reaching results that impact the community-at-large. “This is an enhancement to what we’ve been doing,” says Jon Plodzik, UNH Director of Dining. “It creates a unique model and experience for us and our guests. And it brings the whole mission of the operation to fruition.”

UNH’s dining program has a shining history of sustainability in the composting of food waste at Kingman Farm, another collaboration with the NHAES and COLSA. The ability to further close the loop with the small-scale production of high tunnel produce for a vast operation like dining is an exciting step in completing the model. And the fact that students gain academic real world experience, says Plodzik, is taking a service and applying it toward future knowledge. “We expect that as this project develops, the excess produce will spill over into dining,” says Plodzik who anticipates the on-campus greens will supplement the salad bar at Holloway Commons where 23% of the produce purchased is grown within a 250-mile radius. “We will learn as we go how to best serve each other.”

Rick MacDonald, Director for Business Affairs, has been advocating for this sort of farm-to-fork enterprise his whole career and has seen, first-hand, how excited students can become about a partnership like this one. “The project ties into what’s going on in small agriculture right now,” says MacDonald. “We are returning to a model people want.” Furthermore, adds Plodzik, “Locally grown crisp, fresh produce is phenomenal.” Ideally, he and MacDonald would like to see all of the produce at one of Dining’s facilities be grown on campus in the future.

“It’s all about capacity and volume,” says David May, Associate Vice President of Business Affairs, who acknowledges that the challenge of a short growing season in the Granite state. “With the high tunnels, we have increased our production capacity, and after a couple of years, we’ll know just what that capacity will be.”

Horticultural Production Coordinator Jake Uretsky ’12 MS has been intimately involved with the project, preparing the soil, seeding the rows, caring for the plants, and harvesting the produce. Uretsky trained under COLSA faculty member and NHAES scientist Brent Loy, and was hired to apply his knowledge of horticultural production to the fledgling operation. “I believe we will easily meet and exceed the needs of the Dairy Bar,” says Uretsky. “Our biggest challenge will probably be moderating our production, so produce is ready in smaller batches, when it is needed.  My hope is after we get some of our systems down, we will all be surprised at how much is produced here.”

Wraith notes that a challenge will be to match customer needs, largely during the academic year, with New England’s growing season.  “The teaching and research farm provides a targeted opportunity for our faculty and students to address the use of controlled-growth environments, and can tie in very nicely to the impacts of climate variability and change on regional agriculture.  UNH has been a leader in season-extension and other forms of controlled-growth food production, including in advancement of the high tunnels themselves.  This completes a nice circle for us to be teaching UNH students about food production within structures advanced through our land grant experiment station and extension programs.”

The high tunnels hold significant academic, financial, and environmental benefits for the University and all of its stakeholders. “UNH is so far ahead of the curve in many ways,” say MacDonald. “Other schools study what we do and why we do it. This food production partnership is another feather in our caps.” Wraith, grateful to the leaders at UNH Dining for their enthusiasm and quick willingness to help cover costs, adds, “This represents a great example of modern science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) pedagogy, whereby the underlying principles and concepts are presented within very tangible practical focus.”

The valuable learning opportunities available to students through the experiential course at the high tunnels is not just for Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems majors. “We hope that this course will be attractive to many non-SAFS majors as well,” says Wraith, “and expect that students from across the University, who want to learn about the principles of food production and gain experience in small scale agriculture, will participate.”