UNH Is Making Your Food Smarter

Farming may be old-school, but at the University of New Hampshire, it’s a science.

As you drive through Durham and the UNH campus, it looks like any other college town. Thompson Hall (or T-Hall to sound like a local), complete with clock tower, is a focal point of the surrounding academic buildings. In between, students thread their way along paths as part of their four-year mission to finally clutch a diploma. But look again. This campus is more than libraries, student dorms, Wildcat Stadium and the Whittemore Center.

On the edge of campus, several picturesque barns indicate that this isn’t strictly an urban university. A couple hundred acres of farmland are seeded for harvest, and dairy cows graze on the green. Closer to the center are several greenhouses filled with grad students and plants of every stripe. It’s all here in the name of research. Founded in 1887 and celebrating its 150th anniversary, the NH Agricultural Experiment Station at the UNH College of Life Sciences and Agriculture (COLSA) is the base agricultural component of New Hampshire’s land-grant university, founded just a year earlier.

The agricultural directive remains an important part of research initiatives at UNH. In short, they are searching for healthier versions of squash, more productive potatoes, and happier and healthier cows (fed strictly on grains) that produce organic milk. The focus of this research is mostly for commercial application, but has — or will — come to a farm near you.

One interesting dairy farm application being tested by researchers is Moocall. It’s simply a sensor attached to the tail of a cow near calving time. It sends the researcher a text message that delivery time may be imminent since tails, and probably contractions, are active. As many farmers will tell you, it’s always 3 a.m., but the certainty of the Moocall can save the life of a calf and time for the farmer.

Inside a classic red barn is the UNH Fairchild Dairy Teaching and Research Center. Eighty or so Holsteins are fed beefed-up grain mixes to see which composition or texture promotes a healthier gut for the animal and, most likely, more milk for the farmer. Its setup is similar to a typical small commercial operation where cows are usually in stanchions, and breed often enough to keep lactating. It’s here that students adopt 20 cows for a yearlong term. This gives the students responsibility and lessons in herd management as a part of the Cooperative for Real Education in Agricultural Management (CREAM) program. It’s a nice name, but none of the milk goes to the campus ice cream shop, the Dairy Bar. All the milk from the Fairchild Dairy Center is sold to the Hood plant in Concord and helps fund the operation. Cows at the Fairchild Center produce an average of about 26,000 to 27,000 pounds of milk per cow per year, which is greater than the national average of about 22,000 pounds. The center even won a Gold Quality Award from the Dairy Farmers of America for the quality of milk.

A winner of the same award, the UNH Organic Dairy Research Farm, is about a mile or so from the Fairchild operation. Here, another classic New England barn, this one painted white, is home to a herd of Jerseys, known for their rich milk and endearing faces. They are fed silage in the winter and allowed to graze on the green fields in spring. Antibiotics are only given when necessary, to mimic the needs of an organic farm operation. The Jerseys’ organic milk is sold to Stonyfield Farm in Londonderry for their line of organic yogurts. Additionally, both research facilities actively work with local dairy farmers to help field questions and offer answers.

Other initiatives at the UNH Organic Dairy Research Farm include allowing the cows to graze in a nearby partially cleared forest. The practice, called silvopasture, is the simultaneous management of forages, livestock and timber on the same piece of land. Researchers cleared 2.5 acres of land last year for a silvan pasture and plan to study the effects on soil, plants and water compared to an older and a new pasture. The cows are allowed to wander in the shade of lightly forested areas, offering them respite from the heat. Their hoof action helps set the newly planted grass seeds. Will these contented cows produce more milk? Will farmers be able to gain more pastureland by burrowing into wooded areas? These are just a few of the questions they plan to answer in the next few years.

Michal Lunak, a UNH Cooperative Extension dairy specialist, is working on the problem of the male calf. Dairy farmers don’t have much use for bulls, and they are usually sold for pet food shortly after birth. Lunak is trying to teach North Country dairy farmers to let the bulls age to about a year old, and then sell the beef for some profit. He recommends farmers use a special feed to hurry up the usual two-year process from birth to processing. To help create a market for the meat, he hosted a few tastings in Coös County to prove that beef from dairy animals is as tasty as typical beef cattle.

Jersey cows at the UNH Organic Dairy Research Farm take a lunch break.

Field Work

It’s not all about dairy at UNH’s farms. On the western edge of campus, plant study is conducted at the Woodman Horticultural Research Farm. Studies are underway on a variety of nutritious edibles, from squash and spinach to hardy kiwiberries.

The kiwi is not the furry kind native to Australia, but a cousin about the size of a walnut that grows on vines that survive the frost of winter. At Woodman, plant breeder Iago Hale has established the nation’s first-ever kiwiberry breeding research program. Hale has pruned and trained the vines to look like small trees. The fruit is sweeter than the larger kiwi, looks similar inside, and the skin can be eaten. The project is an attempt to see how viable the right cultivar of hardy kiwiberry will be as a cash crop, especially in the North Country. Fruit left to ripen on the vine can have a sugar content of up to 25 percent. This last fact was not overlooked by winemaker Ken Hardcastle of Hermit Woods Winery in Meredith. For the past several years, he has independently been producing a pleasant, off-dry kiwi wine, sourced from wild-growing vines. For researchers, the vine has the double problem of being considered invasive and susceptible to a variety of botanical diseases, pests and even cats. The latter seems to pick up the scent of catnip.

In a nearby field lies a huge planting of cucurbits, mostly butternut squash, the favorite object of study for J. Brent Loy, professor emeritus of plant biology and genetics.

Loy's work is legendary. He has conducted the longest continuous cucurbit breeding program in North America. His work has resulted in more than 70 new varieties of squash, pumpkins, gourds and melons perfect for New England and sold through seed purveyors like Johnny's Selected Seeds. The white pumpkin you may have noticed at farmer's markets last fall — called Snowball — was developed by his team, as well as Shockwave, a compact cantaloupe, and Honey Bear, a small acorn squash. The team works on breeding compact varieties of melons and squash for higher yield, disease resistance, and deep color. A darker orange, it seems, means more carotenoids and, hence, higher nutritional values, especially vitamin A. Loy received the 2015 Vegetable Breeding Working Group Award of Excellence by the American Society of Horticultural Science, and his patented seed varieties have earned more than a million dollars in royalty payments for the university.

Additional studies at the Woodman Farm include a project to extend the growing season of spinach, a cold-weather crop. Becky Sideman, extension professor of sustainable horticulture production and professor of sustainable agriculture and food systems, recently completed a two-year winter spinach trial to determine the most suitable spinach varieties and planting dates for winter in an unheated high tunnel. It turns out that the spinach, specifically the varieties Emperor and Gazelle, was sweeter when harvested in February. The plants were grown in a unique tall tunnel on wheels that could be rolled back and forth for coverage. Sideman also conducted a study on Brussels sprouts to determine which would thrive better in northern New England.

Inside Information

Nearer to the center of campus, a row of greenhouses are home to more plant-based studies that run year-round. Research at the UNH Macfarlane Research Greenhouses ranges from aquaponics and graduate student experiments to basic botanical studies that are part of the Thompson School of Applied Science.

UNH graduate student Janel Martin put her chef skills on hiatus to study here. Martin, former owner/chef of the Wakefield Inn, is working on a project to get melon sets into the ground earlier. They prefer temperatures in the 60s, but Martin has experimented with grafting hardier cucurbit (squash) rootstock onto the melon so that it can be harvested earlier. Her trials last year were quite successful.

In another Macfarlane greenhouse, researchers launched an aquaculture farming research project that aims to provide a model for integrating land-based aquaculture systems with hydroponic plant production systems. “Over half of the world’s seafood is produced from aquaculture,” says Todd Guerdat, an NH Agricultural Experiment Station researcher and assistant professor of agricultural engineering. Currently he’s leading a project that will be relocated to the Woodman Research Farm this spring. “Eighty percent of the seafood we eat here in the United States is imported, resulting in nearly an annual $11 billion trade deficit for seafood alone,” he continues. “We need to take control of our food production systems by developing a sustainable US-based aquaculture industry.”

UNH’s 25,000 square feet of greenhouse space includes teaching greenhouses where students, in association with the Thompson School, learn ornamental and food crop breeding, and sustainable ornamental plant nutrition and development. Many of the plants nurtured by students are for sale to the public, including tropical plants and poinsettias sold in an annual sale held the first week of December.

The Thompson School offers an associate of applied science degree in seven program areas with nine concentrations and three diploma programs. All offer real-world experience for students.

Academia has been accused of an ivy-tower mentality that too often focuses on obscure research and impractical degrees that have no place in today’s job market. However, at UNH, agricultural research is creating real-world benefits, especially in New Hampshire, and students are finding places in the world where they can make a difference. Isn’t that what we all want to do? Besides, they are growing ivy in the greenhouse and you can buy it. Or buy the hybrid seeds developed by Loy. Or just enjoy that container of organic yogurt from local cows. That’s research you can use.

On the Ocean

UNH research projects include studying alternative markets for the New Hampshire commercial fishing industry, the viability of lobsters in Great Bay Estuary, and the relationship between water conditions and microbiological communities in Great Bay oysters.

Reef Reclamation Project
UNH researchers Ray Grizzle and Krystin Ward were involved in a Nature Conservancy project to restore oyster beds in Great Bay. A whopping 500 cubic yards of clamshells and 12 million juvenile oysters grown in cages at UNH’s Jackson Estuarine Laboratory were deposited in a specific area of Great Bay. The Nature Conservatory has closed about 5 acres of the bay to oyster farming while natural oyster stocks are rebuilt.

Steelhead Trout Aquaculture
Seven hundred trout were harvested this past fall as part of a study in aquaculture. Trout were chosen because they are able to mature quickly in floating pens located in the ocean off of New Castle. To modify the impact of the concentration of fish and their effluence, sugar kelp and mussels were grown in the same water. Aquaculture is considered to be an alternative income stream for fishermen, as ocean harvesting has been limited in recent years.

In the Kitchen

Students in the Culinary Arts program have their own restaurant for real-world experience. 180 Blue is located in Cole Hall Room 144, offering international cuisine this spring. It’s only open on Thursdays from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. The prix-fixe meal is $16.95 and reservations are necessary. Leave a message at (603) 862-4760.

In the Classroom

UNH's dual major in EcoGastronomy combines studies in sustainable agriculture with a second major in one other area: nutrition, business, environmental studies, hospitality management, culinary arts or a host of other options, providing a unique perspective on the world. The EcoGastronomy dual major is the first of its kind to be offered at a major university. The program is in collaboration with the University of New Hampshire’s College of Life Sciences and Agriculture, Peter T. Paul College of Business and Economics and the Sustainability Institute.

Categories: Features