by Enrico Villamaino

The University of Maine’s Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station (MAFES) was recently endowed with a grant from the USDA to assist vegetable and fruit specialists evaluate strategies for producing squash more suitable for storage during Northeastern New England’s formidable winters.

The grant was awarded by the USDA’s Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI). To be eligible for a grant, a proposal must address at least one of five general areas of study: plant breeding and genetics; addressing threats from pests and diseases; improving production and processing efficiency; new innovations and technology; and food safety hazard prevention and response.

Dr. David Handley is a vegetable and small fruit specialist and a Cooperating Professor of Horticulture for UMaine’s Extension Program. Since 1983, he has been based at the MAFES facility in Monmouth, Maine. The location, also known as Highmoor Farm, is where he carries out applied research on vegetable varieties and production techniques.

“What we’re trying to do with this research is to assist farmers of specialty crops diversify what they’re growing, and to give them more options to help them prosper throughout the year,” he said. According to Handley, unlike major crops like soybeans, corn and cotton, specialty crops tend to be grown on a smaller scale and sold directly to the public. He pointed to potatoes, carrots, beets and squash as examples of the most common specialty crops grown in Maine. He added that having a successful growing season isn’t enough to ensure a financially successful one if the crops themselves don’t remain sellable. “We want to help these smaller farmers choose additional crops, ones that are more storage friendly, to help them through the extended winter markets in our area.”

The relatively short growing season in Maine runs from May to September. “Our farmers are sort of up against a wall on both ends. Our spring frost and winter frost really box them in,” Handley said. In light of this, identifying crops that will keep well during the off season and provide farmers with more year-round revenue is extremely important. He noted that the past year, with its attendant COVID-19-related lockdowns, has made pinpointing the hardiest crops more critical than ever.

“We know that with squash, some farmers have had luck when they store it, and others haven’t. We’re going to identify the why behind that,” he said. The first part of Handley’s research will be a survey of squash farmers throughout Maine. “We’ll be focusing on growers of butternut, buttercup and acorn-type squash varietals. We’ll be asking these farmers ‘How did you grow it? What sort of fertilizer or irrigation did you use? How did you prepare them for storage? Did you use any specific curing methods? What were your storage conditions? What was the temperature? Was is in the cellar of a barn, or a dedicated cooling unit? What were the humidity factors? Did you see any fungal disease?’ All of this will give us a more complete picture of what might be influencing how well the squash does during the cold seasons.”

The second phase of Handley’s research will consist of a more controlled study at Highmoor Farm. Using the information gathered during the survey portion of the project, Handley will be able to test out theories spurred by those surveys to produce what he called “more statistically viable data.”

The vast majority of the $12,000 grant will be used to finance the personnel costs needed to run the project. “We need people to collect and compile the data. This grant is allowing us to do that,” he explained. And with phase one of the project already under way, Handley hopes to have phase two completed with results and recommendations available to the agricultural community by April 2022.