Farming comes to NEC

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NEC’s Senior Professor of Chemistry, Sachiko Howard, is always telling her students “soil is not a dirty word,” but now she plans to show them.

NEC is getting a new permaculture farm, a farm that will include: the community garden next to Rowe, an herb garden to be planted behind Gilmore, the tentative spot awaiting permits and soil testing, and a 1-acre spread by the practice field, all of which Howard will be in charge of.

“Permaculture,” the practice all three locations will apply, is a concept created in the 1970’s that Howard refers to as “beyond organic.” Currently, the community garden, which is run by Environmental Science Professor Mark Mitch, is organic but Howard says the biggest difference will be that with permaculture everything’s done on site, considering the health of the ecological system as a whole. One action Howard already took last summer to prepare for this new approach is planting a 20 x 20 plot of wildflowers in the community garden, allowing the bees to pollinate, increasing the health of all plants in the area.

Permaculture is still a relatively new idea. As many are still largely unaware of it, Howard says, “The biggest goal for me with the NEC farm is to #1: spread the word about permaculture and #2: make it sustainable by making sure we can cover the cost with no costs to the college.”

NEC Senior Professor of Chemistry Sachiko Howard, switched to teaching a sustainable agriculture course, which began after spring break, and is also running the new permaculture farm on campus (photo courtesy of New England College)
After spring break, NEC Senior Professor of Chemistry Sachiko Howard switched to teaching a sustainable agriculture course and is also running the new permaculture farm on campus (photo courtesy of New England College)

Howard, who’s been with NEC since 1994, is still working on some small grants to cover the cost of seeds and plants for the larger plot by the practice field. But Chartwells has already pledged $500 for the herb garden, which the Environmental Action Committee has volunteered to plant with Howard on River Day.

As Howard’s a lifetime member of the UNH Cooperative Extension, and has been a Master Gardener 1st class for over 25 years, she commonly hosts talks on gardening during farmers’ markets. So when a few years back, President Perkins mentioned she’d like to have a sustainable agriculture program on campus, as Howard was looking for a career change, it was only natural she be the one to put sustainable agriculture in motion here on campus.

After she earned a permaculture landscape design certificate in 2015, trained to become an official NH Natural Resources Steward, and took a course with the UNH Cooperative Extension last fall called Agriculture and Natural Resource Business Institute, she’d learned everything she needed to know about running a farm. So last January, Howard met with NEC’s administration to talk about the final planning process for NEC’s new farm.

After spring break, she switched from teaching Chemistry full-time, as there was a good professor to take over, to teaching a sustainable gardening course part-time. Already 15 students have signed up for this new course. Howard explains, the only inconvenience is that, unfortunately, this course ends before the growing season in NH begins in late May. But despite this hurdle, students in the course will soon be planting tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant—as they take longer to mature than others—on growing tables indoors.

One of Howard’s hopes is to grow enough tomatoes and lettuce this summer to have a faculty and staff luncheon, and she also plans to support the food pantry in Henniker. But she says because of waiting on weather, digging and planting in the new garden—as long as everything goes as planned—will be volunteer-based.

Howard says she can’t wait for the weather to change, so work on this project can begin. She has a great commitment to the natural environment, especially the local environment, as she’s part of the Henniker Town Conservation Commission and the Azalea Park Riverwalk Committee, which was created in 2009 to revitalize the park in Henniker on the Contoocook. Howard played an important role in attaining a $24,000 grant from Aquatic Resources Mitigation Fund, according to Michael Pon of The Villager, to overhaul the park in Henniker, which after sitting 40 years is un-maintained, overgrown, and suffering erosion damages as a result of alterations to dams upstream. Work on the park is set to begin this summer, something Howard is proud of.

She loves to dig into the dirt, but her specialty is exotic vegetables.

Howard began planting soybeans 30 years ago, back when no one else was, and she says she had to show people how to eat them because nobody had heard of edamame (green soy beans) around here.

“When I first came to the U.S., all the grocery stores had standard U.S.-food,” Howard smiles. “If I wanted to eat Japanese vegetables I had to grow them.”

For the last two years, Howard’s been growing saffron crocus—one of the world’s most valuable spices. Recently, commercial production of this spice was featured on WMUR. She plans to scale up her production of saffron for the fall harvest. Another idea Howard has is to grow organic hops at the NEC farm, which is more complicated and expensive than most plants, as it requires a special supporting structure.

“Because this is an educational institution,” Howard says, “I want to do a lot of experiments at the NEC farm. I want to try and grow unusual vegetables and plants in general.”

She says the new farm will offer NEC’s students experiential learning opportunities. She loves to see students expand their horizons.

“We have a lot of students coming from urban areas who have very little experience with the soil,” Howard smiles. “I want them to have the experience of picking a tomato, still warm in the sun, and just taking a bite.”

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