Cows, wildflowers and squash: Finding more sustainable food at UNH

  • A Jersey calf gets friendly at the New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station’s organic dairy research farm.  ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • A Jersey cow gets some shade at the organic dairy research farm. ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Plants fill the MacFarlane Research Greenhouses conservatory, where student volunteers maintain rare and tropical plants.  ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Renowned squash researcher Dr. Brent Loy works in the MacFarlane Research Greenhouses at UNH.  ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Lettuce grown through an experimental aquaponic system sits inside MacFarlane Research Greenhouses recently.  ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • A Holstein calf named Lucy stands inside the Fairchild Dairy Teaching and Research Center, a research barn included in the New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station.  ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Jon Whitehouse, the UNH dairy manager for 33 years, stands outside at the Fairchild Dairy Teaching and Research Center recently.  ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station researcher Cathy Neal marks plots in her wildflower research bed recently. Photos by ELODIE REED / Monitor staff

  • Pepper plants grow in a high tunnel at the UNH Woodman Horitcultural Research Center. ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Kiwi plants grow at the Woodman Horitcultural Research Center as part of an experiment to find a variety for northern New England farmers to use for winemaking.  ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Lupine flowers bloom at one of the New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station sites as part of research into what plants are best for wild pollinators.  ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Pregnant cows get some shade during a hot morning at the UNH Fairchild Dairy Teaching and Research Center. 

  • Agriculture technician Renee Cantara plants winter squash in the field of the New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station’s Kingman Farm. ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 6/19/2016 11:41:34 PM

It’s high farming season, and those at the New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station are busy boosting the immunity of newborn calves, watching wildflowers plots for pollinators and breeding super squash.

At the station’s five facilities – two dairy barns, two more research farms, and a greenhouse at the University of New Hampshire – researchers and students are trying to develop environmentally-friendly, cost-efficient and high-quality methods for sustainable food production in New Hampshire.

Equipped with information from the experiment station’s ongoing studies, the UNH Cooperative Extension reaches out to farmers and growers to tell them about better methods, varieties and technologies, and ultimately, better food for all.

In recent years, the station’s research has supported what has become an increasing demand for locally sourced products from Granite Staters.

“Especially with all of these issues with sustainable food producton and soil issues, there’s definitely a growing interest in New Hampshire with the CSA market, farm-to-table, slow food,” said Lori Wright, communications and information manager for the experiment station.

In the fields

Up a dirt road just off UNH’s Durham campus, researchers at Woodman Horticultural Research Farm bustled between an unheated high-tunnel full of pepper varieties, wooden stakes holding the vines of a cold-hearty and potential wine-suitable kiwi berry for the North Country, and in Cathy Neal’s case, a bed of wildflowers.

Using small, brightly colored flags to mark her various plots, Neal knelt between stems of black-eyed susans, purple cone flowers and 15 more species of wildflower plants she said have been growing there since 2011.

“What I am basically looking at is how these wildflowers establish themselves,” Neal said. They don’t receive any water or fertilizer, and her hope is to find the right mix of species that can provide for pollinators over the warm months while not requiring much care.

These species, Neal said, could be a more beneficial and colorful replacement for turf lawns, too.

Like most of the studies that go on there, farm manager John McLean said Neal’s research is about season extension for pollinatorslike bees, which inevitably helps growers, and by extension, consumers who like to eat fruit.

“That’s what it’s about – it’s helping people,” said McLean.

More food research is being conducted at Kingman Farm, a wide expanse of field in Madbury. Most prominent are the vast plots of squash overseen by the famous Dr. Brent Loy.

Graduate student Andrew Ogden and technician Renee Cantara neatened up long rows of winter squash and placed seedings in the planting holes previously passed over.

“It’s mostly aimed at cultivar improvement,” Ogden said of Loy’s studies. Better growing and better tasting breeds of squash, he added, will hopefully widen the selection of varieties found at grocery stores, and enlarge the market.

The greenhouse

The man himself, Dr. Brent Loy, was found in the station’s fifth facility, the MacFarlane Research Greenhouses.

“I’ve got a zillion projects,” Loy said. He does cooperative research with various seed companies, and right now he’s most interested in producing a butternut squash variety higher in vitamins and its indicator, an orange pigment called carotenoid.

“I’m trying to increase the quality of those because a lot of what the market is using is poor quality,” he said.

Loy’s seedlings are just some of the leafy material filling the 20,000 or so square feet of greenhouses. Greenhouses manager David Goudreault said there are also ongoing studies on genetic breeding for strawberries as well as an experimental aquaponics growing system.

In a system with fish, their excrement for fertilizer, and their water filtered by growing produce, Goudreault said the study is looking at how to enhance greenhouses in colder months. Both plants and fish are the harvested product.

“It’s a completely closed system,” said Goudreault.

At the dairies

Fairfield Dairy seems like any other dairy barn: cows line the walls awaiting the next milking, calves poke their noses curiously out of their stalls, the strong smell of unpasteurized, freshly squeezed milk in its holding tank wafts through the air. But some things are a little different, like a sign asking people to text graduate student Kayla Aragona if they see calving in the process.

That sign, said dairy manager of 33 years Jon Whitehouse, is to help Aragona with her study of feeding niacin to a pregnant cow. When the calf is born, Aragona takes blood samples of mom and baby cow to see how the supplemental vitamin helps the quality of the first milk the cow has available for her calf.

The expectation, said Whitehouse, is that the milk will pass on higher levels of immunity to the calf.

“So then there’s a healthier animal,” he said.

In her experiment, Aragona is also testing a device called Moocall, a motion detector placed on a pregnant cow’s tail that, when she’s contracting just before calving, sends a text message to the farmer.

One particular cow wasn’t a fan of the $300 device hanging off her tail, and tried to get it off by banging it against the wall.

“It was sending (Kayla) tests all the time – it was driving her crazy,” Whitehouse said. In general, though, he added, “It’s a pretty neat device – it’s something a common farmer can buy.”

Whitehouse added that all the studies at Fairfield Dairy are an effort to help the state’s farmers.

“Anything to make the herd healthier,” he said. And anything to boost protein in cow’s milk, which at higher levels, demands a higher milk price.

Of the 90 cows in the herd, about 80 percent are pregnant at any one time, and about 20 are in the student teaching CREAM (Cooperative for Real Education in Agricultural Management) herd.

Just under 10 miles away in Lee, the station has an organic research dairy farm run by Nicole Guindon. In the afternoon heat, Jersey calves grazed in the sun, swatted away bugs and enthusiastically greeted visitors.

It’s the first organic dairy to be included at a land-grant university, Wright explained, and works to find organic ways to improve cow health and milk. To try and get rid of ticks and mosquitoes, for instance, Wright said Guindon was trying out a flock of the loud-squawking, bug-devouring guinea hen.

Then and now

All these activities in the fields, greenhouses and barns have in fact been at the very roots of UNH since it began way back in the 1860s, Wright said.

“It was founded in part to solve agricultural issues that we’re still having today,” she said.

When the school and its agricultural station was moved from its original location at Dartmouth College to some land left behind by farmer Benjamin Thompson in Durham in the 1890s, it was done with the intention that New Hampshire establish a school to promote agriculture.

In looking back to its beginnings, Wright said the New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station’s early days may also hold some clues about the state’s future for sustainable food.

“All of these movements are part of New Hampshire’s agricultural history,” said Wright. “These are perennial issues that we have to keep looking at and studying to try and do better.”

(Elodie Reed can be reached at 369-3306, or on Twitter @elodie_reed.)

Note: This story has been updated with the accurate name of the University of New Hampshire’s research station, the New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station. 

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