UNH High Tunnels
UNH making it fresh thanks to high tunnels
Do a little homework on the UNH Conferences and Catering operation and it doesn’t take long to discover that it places great emphasis on incorporating fresh, local ingredients into their food prep whenever possible. The resident UNH catering gurus and top chefs, Michelle Fiumara-Montgomery and Jack Aydelott, make sure of that.
Just how local some of the ingredients are may surprise you, though. In fact, they’re growing right in UNH’s backyard. Literally.
Said ingredients are being grown by UNH students majoring in sustainable agricultural and food systems (part of UNH’s College of Life Sciences and Agriculture), in a pair of high tunnels adjacent to UNH’s Fairchild Dairy Teaching and Research Center. One tunnel is heated, one is not.
For those unfamiliar with the term “high tunnel,” allow us to enlighten you.
A high tunnel is a plastic-covered, greenhouse-like structure, inside of which crops are grown year round. They’re ideal for veggies, small fruits, and cut flowers, to name a few items. It allows the farmer, or in this case UNH student farmers, to protect crops from harmful bugs and pests, disease, wind and rain. Simply put, it’s a cost-effective way to control the growing environment and to lengthen the growing season.
It’s also convenient for chefs Fiumara-Montgomery and Aydelott, not to mention a great source of pride considering their longstanding belief in working with fresh, local ingredients whenever possible.
“We are so proud to serve the excellent greens, herbs, and onions provided to us by the crew at the College of Life Sciences and Agriculture,” Aydelott said. “We’ve found the greens provided by COLSA last well over a week in our coolers, while maintaining that same quality of flavor.”
Andrew Ogden, a professor in the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems degree program, explains that the crops are now being used by the popular Dairy Bar located in front of the Whittemore Center, the school’s dining services operation, and of course, the conferences and catering operation.
“Jack and Michelle came out to the tunnels in the winter and put together sort of a wish list for events they would be putting on,” Ogden said.
The high tunnels couldn’t produce everything on that list, but they were able to provide a good starting point of what both parties hope will be a long and fruitful working relationship in the spirit of sustainable dining.
“We grew a bunch of produce for a dinner they hosted last fall. We grew beets, radishes, carrots, head lettuce and salad mix,” Ogden said. “This year we’ve been providing them with spinach, lettuce, (salad mix and head lettuce), and a small amount of culinary herbs like rosemary, thyme and just this spring semester, oregano, dill, basil, mint, and sage.”
The high tunnels have also produced tomatoes, squash and cucumbers.
“We only wish they were able to provide us with all of our produce needs,” Aydelott said. “Nothing makes a chef happier than fresh ingredients to work with!”
And for those wondering, yes, when it’s local you can usually taste the difference.
“It’s amazing to see the high quality and superb, fresh flavor that you can get when your produce is picked and delivered on the same day,” Aydelott said.
Ogden agreed about the quality of the produce.
“The herbs are pretty high impact, so people notice it’s fresh, flavorful,” Ogden said. “We try to go for high impact, high value. It’s harder to give people mashed potatoes; it would take a very fine palate for people to notice they were local, fresh potatoes.”
The crops being grown by Ogden’s students and used by UNH Conferences and Catering are, for the most part, in accordance with the seasons.
“We’re growing crops year round like salad mix and head lettuce, and so we’re harvesting those all through the winter in the heated high tunnel,” Ogden said. “In the unheated high tunnel we’ve been wintering cold, hearty crops like onions, beat, carrots and radishes. We pull frost blankets over them at night and keep them really harvesting throughout the winter, which is pretty neat. Now, we have a bunch of onions that normally wouldn’t be ready until August or September.”