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Growing Better Gardens Manager's Life Work

By Jody Record, Campus Journal Editor
October 31, 2007

Woodman Farm looks like an old family homestead whose fields are full of craggy apple trees and yellow squash and sagging sunflowers stalks waiting to be cut back. To the scores of visitors who come every year, it could be any farm anywhere in New Hampshire.

But to John McLean, the 155 acres are a living research laboratory with one true goal: to keep trying to figure out how best to help farmers.

The manager of Woodman and Kingman farms and the UNH greenhouses, McLean has been at his job for 30 years. While he has seen a shift in research crops--one professor is now studying sweet potatoes to see if the warm season root can be grown in a cooler climate--the focus, he says, remains on finding more sustainable ways to grow plants, both for food and landscape.

McLean was drawn to UNH by his love of the outdoors. He also believed food production would become an important part of our future and wanted to be a part of that process. So, it's no wonder that the growing squash and apples that are now served in UNH dining halls pleases him.

"It puts us in the dining halls three times a week; you take pride in your product. You look at the world and try to figure out what you can do to make little pieces of it fit together. Growing your own food is part of the circle," McLean says.

This is the first year that Woodman Farm has grown squash for Dining Services. Dedicating an acre of land for the crop--more than 12,000 pounds were grown-- has added to the day-to-day work but McLean calls it the "right thing to do for the students."

Another newer project has researchers growing sunflowers so the seeds can be made into bio-diesel fuel to help fuel the farms’ tractors and heated structures. This year, the testing added other seed-producing plants including canola and mustard.

“With all of these crops, new challenges arise. The sunflowers needed a different type of cultivation than we were used to, and the mustards had a hard time competing with the weeds,” McLean says. “Because we hadn't done it before, we didn't know how to deal with it. Everyday is a learning experience."

Woodman Farm has been growing apples for years, but in 1992 the NH Fruit Growers Association donated 600 trees so researches could study how to better grow the popular fruit.

This year, a graduate student's project had the trees sprayed with nitrogen-based fertilizer to see if it will help with apple scab, a fungus that McLean says is "pretty mean."

"You want to use the least amount of ‘inputs’ while still maintaining the highest quality," McLean says. "Hopefully the nitrogen will burn the scab innoculum out, but not damage the trees, but we won't know if it works until spring. We could be spraying the trees with a caustic substance; we don't know. It's not normally done."

Another project has researchers looking at blackberry varieties for winter hardiness. Years ago it's likely the berries wouldn't have made it through a New Hampshire winter. Different row covers were looked at for their effect on protecting the plants from the winter’s cold.

In a tomato, pepper and sweet potato trial this year—another move toward sustainability--green aisles were used as living mulch between each row of black plastic (where the crops grew). The thought was the aisles would reduce weeds and workers could mow instead of having to hoe.

"It didn't work; there was too much competition (for nutrients) between the grass and the green aisles and the plants," McLean says. "But that's why we're here: to see what works and what doesn't."

Not all of the research is done on food crops. Cooperative Extension Professor Cathy Neal has been studying the effects of overwintering different container stock. It’s too early to tell the results of those trials. She has also worked with mums to see if those that aren't pitched or sprayed (her model) will branch out as much as those that are.

"The result was, you couldn't tell the difference so why do anything?" McLean says, again confirming the importance of the research done at the UNH farms that he oversees.

Becky Grube, also with the Cooperative Extension, is the one doing the sweet potato research. The findings?

"It's always been said you can't grow them in New Hampshire because it's not a long enough season but she's done it," McLean says.

It is this diversity that makes coming to work every day so exciting, McLean says.

"I'm never doing the same thing. Some days I'm at meetings, some days I'm in the fields, some days I'm teaching," McLean says. "A lot of it is playing the weather; the environment, and that's the challenge. Nature has a very hard pattern out there. We are constantly working with nature."

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