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One of the best-kept secrets at UNH: Woodman Farm

By Ken Gagnon, Media Relations

Far away from the hubbub of everyday student life, on a secluded road near the edge of campus, sits one of the best-kept secrets at UNH: the Woodman Horticulture Farm.

The Woodman Farm is the product of several large land grants that were given to the university in the early 20th century, and now serves as the primary site for agricultural research at UNH. It includes a storage barn, greenhouses, several high tunnels, a lathe house, a residential farmhouse, and a building housing the farm office and refrigerated storage rooms. A tour of the farm with John McLean, manager of the UNH farms and greenhouses, revealed a great deal of the experimental agriculture that goes on there every day.

The experimental research at the Woodman Farm is conducted as part of the New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station, a research and service unit funded by the state and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Though it might sound like a scientifically complex program of interest only to those who conduct the research, many of the ideas currently coming out of the Woodman Farm are impressively practical innovations that could have a profound impact upon the scientific world and rural communities that depend upon agriculture for their survival.

“You could say one of our major focuses here through breeding crops is low impact agriculture,” McLean said in passing rows of oats and peas planted as a winter cover to protect the soil from erosion and also to increase the nitrogen content in the soil. “This is farming that works for everybody - the growers, the industry, and the Earth.”

The sort of farming that McLean was talking about is evident all over Woodman Farm in the many different research projects being conducted by faculty in the Plant Biology Department. One example is Professor J. Brent Loy, who has created a new strain of summer squash with what is called glabrous foliage; it is smooth and non-spiny, unlike other kinds of squash.

“This trait is both a benefit to workers who harvest the fruit, and it also prevents injury to the fruit during harvest,” Loy explained.

Loy, who has been at UNH for more than 30 years, dabbles in many different kinds of experimental agriculture, and often focuses his efforts on the breeding of Cucurbits, a type of plant that includes squash, cucumbers, pumpkins, and gourds. His research projects range from the development of pumpkins that yield hull-less seeds for the snack food industry to ornamental gourds that come in a variety of colors and patterns.

Loy isn’t the only one doing notable work; many of his colleagues are experimenting in ways that could change the way common agriculture works. Catherine Neal, an ornamental extension specialist, is in the midst of conducting trials with nitrogen fertilizer whose results may change how much fertilizer growers use with their nursery plants. Also noteworthy are the efforts of Rosanna Freyre, an ornamental breeder, who works at evaluating the outdoor performance of new plants she develops to select new cultivars for commercial use. Tom Davis grows strawberries at the Woodman Farm in order to study the plant’s genetics and evolution.

Many UNH graduate students also perform research alongside professors at Woodman Farm. These students include Victoria Davidson, who is in the midst of trying to develop larger specialty-market strawberries; Mark Lefsrud, who studies the nutritional content of kale, spinach and flax; and Andrea Quintana and Amy Douglas, who are both involved in studies on the genetics and breeding of ornamental plants.

The Woodman Farm is also home to an impressive apple orchard, which serves as a prime example of the type of improved farming the Woodman Farm staff hopes to teach to growers in the region. The apples are grown under the integrated pest management (IPM) program of Alan Eaton, who works to identify pest problems for growers and then teach them how to identify them on their own through workshops and meetings. One such occasion was the Twilight Meeting held at Woodman Farm this past August, which gathered over 100 farmers in the area to learn about pest management and horticultural research at UNH.

The work being done at the Woodman Horticulture Farm clearly isn’t the sort of thing that does nothing but sit in the pages of obscure science journals; these are projects with real practical applications. From vegetables that are easier for farmers to gather to new varieties of ornamental plants, these are not just minor research projects; these are improved ways to sustain both ourselves and our relationship with the natural world.

“If we can improve the ways we farm and remove some of the inputs that give growers problems, I think we have a responsibility to the Earth to get it done,” says McLean.

And if steps towards that sort of agriculture continue to be taken at the Woodman Horticultural Farm, it surely won’t remain a secret for very much longer.

 


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