Newsletter and Subscription Sign Up

UNH's Tasty Science

Published Friday Sep 28, 2018

Author Sheryl Rich-Kern

Off the coast of New Castle, a floating fish farm is the catalyst for a new line of craft beer, kelp and culinary concoctions. Photo by Rebecca Irelan/UNH.

The aquaculture project is just one of many endeavors at the University of NH in Durham where protecting the ecological balance is more than a watchword. It’s also a driver for innovative flavors and gastronomical ventures.

Take, for example, the seaweed harvested through a research project run by aquaculturist Michael Chambers and funded by the UNH Cooperative Extension and NH Sea Grant. The marine plant’s briny tang is the secret kick in the “Selkie” beer, which is produced annually at the Portsmouth Brewery in June.

Michael Chambers holding harvested sugar kelp. Photo by Rebecca Irelan/UNH.

Brewery owner Joanne Francis was keen on recreating the Scottish ale she sampled in her years abroad. That beer was made with the more common bladderwrack seaweed found in shelter inlets across the British Isles and known for its medicinal properties.

Her head brewer, Matt Gallagher, had never encountered seaweed before, except, he says in his wipeouts as a surfer. However, as a UNH graduate, he was familiar with the university’s marine biology endeavors. After a series of phone calls, Gallagher found himself motoring on a dinghy to an ocean raft with Chambers, pulling up long ropes of slippery seaweed.

Chambers says the seaweed—or sugar kelp—is cleaned in a fresh-water lab before it gets boiled at the brewery in a kettle with hops and barley. Gallagher had to experiment with formulas before he settled on a recipe. The resulting aftertaste is “like a swim in the ocean, a salinity that clings to your lips and palate with a residual sweetness,” he says.

Last month, Gallagher collected 60 pounds of sugar kelp to brew seven barrels of beer, or slightly more than 200 gallons. The hoppy, amber-colored ale will last for a couple of months.

Chambers says the sugar kelp is the “superfood of the sea,” rich in vitamins and minerals. He’s been growing it in the frigid waters of the Atlantic, along with mussels and trout. He describes his fish cage as a deep net surrounded by a walking platform where grad students hang down lines to collect the kelp. Researchers call it an integrated multi-trophic aquaculture system, or IMTA, which borrows a concept from animal farming where one species gets its nutrients from the waste of another. In this case, the fish in the pen excrete waste that the lower trophic species—mussels and seaweed—depend on. Chambers explains they act like a biological filter, expelling nitrogen from the ocean.

Chambers is writing proposals to put more research dollars into the endeavors, with the hope fishermen can replicate this system on a larger scale.

Potential Seaweed Biz Boom
One entrepreneur Chambers didn’t have to persuade is 26-year-old Paige Driscoll, who is launching Atlantic Seaweed Farm with her dad, Jayson Driscoll, a fisherman from Rye Harbor. (Paige Driscoll is a ceramicist and lives on the nonprofit Wolfe’s Neck Farm in Freeport, Maine, where she cans fruits and vegetables.) Atlantic Seaweed Farm uses a suspended aquaculture system of 300-foot-long ropes dropped 10 feet below the water's surface, each growing sugar kelp, alaria and dulse seaweed.

Providing closer-to-shore alternatives for fishermen, particularly in the off-season, is important to Driscoll, as is the health of the ocean. She’s also enamored with the market possibilities for kelp, often heralded as a sea-born “superfood,” rich in nutrients and anti-oxidants.

Beyond Japanese sushi, chefs cook it like collard greens and combine it with other ingredients to concoct ice cream, granola, salads and noodles. Cosmetic companies imbue it in creams; spas blend it into facial wraps. The anti-plastics movement is getting in on the action, too.

Yes, seaweed is the new plastics—a biodegradable packaging substitute. A case in point is the London-based startup, Skipping Rocks Labs, which introduced the Ooho balls, spherical water containers made of brown seaweed. Customers gulp a few swishes of water and then eat the “bottle.”

Another purveyor of edible compostable materials, Loliware in New York, garnered recognition on Shark Tank and is rolling out a seaweed-based, marine-degradable straw designed to replace millions of plastic straws tossed in the trash.

Loliware's seaweed-based marine-degradable straws. Courtesy photo.

“Astronomical” is how Driscoll describes the industry’s potential. Nonetheless, Atlantic Seaweed Farm, NH’s first commercial seaweed farm, got off to a rough start this year, with several storms hindering production. Yet despite what Driscoll calls a “few hiccups along the way,” she’s determined to make a go of it.

“We’re passionate about fighting ocean pollution,” she says. And Chambers’ research is helping to make that possible.

Creating a Local Trout Market
While kelp is making inroads in niche markets, Chambers’ steelhead trout is finding a more local outlet. A member of the salmon family, the salt-water fish is sparking the interests of area chefs like Evan Mallett, owner of Black Trumpet in Portsmouth and the Ondine Oyster + Wine Bar in Belfast, Maine.

Local steelhead trout served at Black Trumpet in Portsmouth. Courtesy of UNH.

Mallett, whose epicurean reputation rests on his commitment to sustainably grown food, was skeptical at first. Steelhead trout aren’t native to east coast waters; they’re primarily found in the Pacific Ocean or Asia. And they’re often perceived as unhealthy because they can breed disease and pollute the ocean. But Chambers’ IMTA system is clean, he says, and “turns a good idea into a viable market.”

When patrons ask the source of his menu’s gravlax or tartare, Mallett instructs his servers to describe the sea-grant steelhead trout as similar to wild salmon, but less fatty and sweet.

Black Trumpet was the first restaurant in NH to cook with the local trout. Mallett shared the discovery with a few of his chef friends, and they spread the word. Now the UNH steelhead trout can be found in scratch-made fare of several seacoast eateries.

Cultivating local seafood markets is critical for sustainability as more than 80 percent of the seafood we eat comes from outside the United States, says Todd Guerdat, a NH Agricultural Experiment Station researcher and assistant professor of agricultural engineering. More than half of that comes from aquaculture. “We need to find environmental and economic ways to grow fish,” he says, “since the ocean can’t keep up with the demand.”

Todd Guerdat working with the aquaponic system at UNH. Photo by Jeremy Gasowski/UNH.

Guerdat studies fish food, analyzing how different levels of proteins affect fish waste and how that waste nourishes plant production. He’s currently operating two facilities: one is a recirculating aquaponic system on the Durham campus and the other is a series of three greenhouses growing lettuce at  Kingman Farm in Madbury.

These systems will validate, at an almost commercial scale, the integration of aquaponic tilapia production and hydroponic crops, according to Guerdat, who says that the combined systems will produce 1,000 heads of lettuce a week and 150 pounds of fish a month. By demonstrating how to increase food production, Guerdat hopes to show farmers how to use water and energy more efficiently.

The output of this research has another benefit: feeding those in need. The tilapia grown in the tanks are donated to the NH Food Bank.

Seeding the Future
People take for granted the stockpiles of squash at supermarkets with their creamy yellow and muted orange skins in shapes that vary from round to bell-shaped. But what most people don’t think about is their gene variations and their different characteristics—the pumpkin pigments, the sweetness, the fragrance—says Brent Loy, professor emeritus of plant biology and genetics, and researcher with NH Agricultural Experiment Station.

Brent Loy, professor emeritus of plant biology and genetics at UNH. Courtesy of UNH.

Through selective breeding, Loy has spent five decades at Kingman Research Farm in Madbury perfecting the traits of cucurbits, which include squash, melons and pumpkins. He then retails his breeds to seed companies like Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Maine and others as far away as China and New Zealand.

Loy estimates he’s released over 80 varieties of seeds. He’s also won national breeding trophies. His fast-growing All-American Honey Bear hybrid squash, with its rigid earthy-green shell, was a semifinalist twice for the national Agriscience Award. And he is responsible for 29 percent of cumulative royalties earned by UNH since 1999.

Honey Bear, a small acorn squash variety. Courtesy of UNH.

Now Loy is trying to improve the kabochas—a type of winter squash—to make them “less viney” and more compact to produce higher yields. That’s an important consideration for New England, he says, since acreage is small, and demand for locally farmed food is high.

Loy, whose agricultural roots go back to the fifth grade when he earned 15 cents per hour weeding onions on a farm in Utah, can wax on for hours about kabochas. He says the squash—and its relatives—may help stave off macular degeneration in aging adults because of its levels of lutein, an antioxidant, along with its partner, zeaxanthin. Kabochas are  also rich in magnesium and potassium, minerals related to healthy blood pressure.

Because of climate change, the growing season is two weeks longer than it was 30 years ago, bringing with it a diversity of crops.

While he’s finishing his work with melons and ramping up the cross-breeding of kabochas, Loy says his work is never really done. All of his lines require several generations to breed. “By the time you make a breakthrough, there’s another disease to conquer.”

Extending the Growing Season
Helping farmers avoid risks and extend their growing seasons is also the task of researchers like Becky Sideman with the UNH Woodman Horticultural Research Farm in Durham, a facility of the NH Agricultural Experiment Station.

In June, consumers indulge in native-grown strawberries, often bought at pick-your-own farm stands. Sideman hopes to prolong that season by planting rows of strawberries in semicircular plastic greenhouses that are low to the ground and look like miniature tunnels.

Rows of strawberries planted in semicircular plastic greenhouses by Becky Sideman, a researcher with the UNH Woodman Horticultural Research Farm in Durham. Courtesy of UNH.

The berries Sideman is growing are called day-neutrals, as compared to the June berries more common to this region. She’s analyzing mulches and types of plastic coverings to see how they affect sugar content, fruit color and, of course, taste.

Day-neutrals, a strawberry plant-type, have been shown to fruit continuously for four to six months in the region. Photo by Kaitlyn Orde/UNH.

“We’re always looking for ways for farmers to capture new markets,” says Sideman, “or improve the ones they already have.”

Sideman initiates projects, for example, to manage challenging pests in Brussels sprouts or test the feasibility of table grapes.

This latter undertaking followed a $10,000, four-year SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education) farming grant that John Lastowka, a retired engineer in Merrimack, initiated to plant 16 varieties of grapes eight years ago. He invested another $12,000 for trellises and deer fences atop a hill on his 40-acre farm that’s lush with peaches, blueberries, honey bees and the titanic Wolf River apples.

Lastowka says it’s been a “slow recoup,” as he, along with the expertise from the UNH Cooperative Extension, evaluate which grapes are the most cold-hardy. He compares the experience to “getting a free college education from UNH.”

Each year, he markets about two tons of grapes, selling half of them to wineries. Grapes lose their sweetness the further they have to travel, explains Lastowka. But grapes eaten fresh off their vines deliver a sugar high that’s unparalleled to the grocery stores brands from Chile or California. Lastowka says his local customers nicknamed one of his rosy-pink strains the “cotton candy” grape. “They’re that good,” he says.

As he cuts hay in his air-conditioned tractor while multi-tasking on his cell phone, he often thinks of his grandparents who sowed the farm 100 years ago. For them, it was a livelihood. That’s hardly the case for farmers in NH these days, who are mostly small operators or hobbyists. But on the other hand, horticultural research is helping agronomists develop new crops that can brave the northeast winters.

Of the 16 varieties of grapes Lastowka planted, a dozen continue to thrive.

Creating a Better Kiwi
Another one of nature’s candies, the kiwiberry, is getting a closer look under the long-term breeding project of the NH Agricultural Experiment Station at UNH’s Woodman Farm.

Kiwiberries grown at the Woodman Horticultural Research Farm. Courtesy of UNH.

Once the domain of backyard enthusiasts and garden designers, the grape-sized kiwiberry has not received its fair share of commercial production, especially in the United States. At least that’s how Will Hastings, a biology and agricultural sciences graduate student at UNH, sees it.

As its name implies, the kiwiberry is a mini-kiwi without the fuzz and a more tropical, complex flavor. It’s loaded with plenty of fiber and vitamin C. Kiwiberries are not a new, exotic fruit. They came over from Europe and Asia in the late 1800s, around the same time as blueberries. Landscapers overlooked their fruitiness, and instead prized the kiwiberries for their ability to twine, as well as their flashy pink tips and dabs of white. Think ornamental trellises draping 19th century estates, and they’re probably laced with kiwiberry plants.

Hastings is working under the guidance of Iago Hale, assistant professor of specialty crop improvement at UNH, testing the northernmost extent of their hardiness, and observing growth rates and yields. The New Earth Organic Farm in Colebrook and Wintergreens Farm in North Stratford are acting as satellite farms.

Iago Hale working with the kiwiberry at the NH Agricultural Experiment Station Woodman Horticultural Research Farm. Courtesy of UNH.

“We’re looking to develop this crop as a high-value, specialty crop for the northeast and beyond,” says Hastings. A single vine can produce between 50 and 100 pounds of fruit. Recently, his program ran a statewide farmers market survey to gauge consumer interest and value. The results indicated a market price of $10 per pound. “That’s a serious benefit,” says Hastings.

Will Hastings working with the kiwiberry at the NH Agricultural Experiment Station Woodman Horticultural Research Farm. Courtesy of UNH.

In NH, finding fresh fruit and plants was typically reserved for the season of extended sunlight when residents uncover their porch chairs and begin watering their gardens. But in the last several decades, agricultural research at UNH and other land-grant public universities is stretching the appetite for fresh food into an all-season affair.

All Stories