Education

Basic Food Safety Practices at Home

making sauerkraut
Photo: Diane Wright Hirsch

What made you sick? Is it food you cooked at home?

While we continue to blame farmers, processors, food- service and restaurants for making the food that makes us sick, the fact is that home cooks are quite likely to handle food in a way that results in a foodborne illness. The safety of our food supply is the responsibility of all who grow, process, sell, prepare and eat food.

The “rules” for safe food handling can seem overwhelming. However, if you take these five small steps, you can have a big impact on the safety of your food at home. Save these on your fridge for a few days and see if you can make these habits part of your everyday food prep routine.

  1. Keep your kitchen, utensils, and hands clean.
  2. Handle raw and cooked foods with care.
  3. Use a food thermometer.
  4. Use a refrigerator thermometer.
  5. Get leftovers into the refrigerator ASAP after eating.

More detail on each of these food safety tips is in the full article at http://s.uconn.edu/fsathome.

STEM Education for Teens, Adults, and Teachers

nrca students in waterThe Natural Resources Conservation Academy (NRCA) is a group of three linked projects that focus on connecting STEM education for high school students with natural resource conservation at the local level. With over 130 land trusts in the state and each of its 169 municipalities having a Conservation Commission, Connecticut has a long history of local conservation. NRCA provides an assist to these efforts, while educating students and teachers about the science and issues surrounding natural resource protection. The TPL is joined by the foundational NRCA project, the Conservation Ambassador Program (CAP), and the Conservation Training Partnership (CTP). CAP brings high school students from around the state to campus for a week-long intensive field experience at the UConn main campus, from which they return home to partner with a community organization on a conservation project of their own design. CTP moves around the state for two-day training of adult-student teams that teaches them about smart phone mapping applications and their use in conservation. The teams then return and implement a conservation project. Together the three programs have educated 308 participants and resulted in 187 local conservation projects in 105 towns, involving 119 community partner organizations.

Article by Chet Arnold

Teacher Professional Learning: Professional Development Workshop

teachers during a workshopUConn Extension is leading a project that provides high school science teachers from across the state with a head start on a new way of teaching. Over the past two summers, 48 teachers from 38 school districts attended the 3-day Teacher Professional Learning (TPL) workshop, Land and Water.

The training, funded by a USDA/NIFA grant, was developed and is taught by Extension faculty from the Center for Land Use Education and Research (CLEAR) and partners from the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, the Center for Environmental Sciences and Engineering, and the Neag School of Education. This formidable partnership conducts three inter-related STEM projects collectively known as the Natural Resources Conservation Academy.

Connecticut is one of 19 states to date that have adopted the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), an ambitious new way
of teaching science that was developed by 
a consortium of states and nonprofit science organizations including the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the National Research Council. Connecticut school districts are still in the very early stages of adopting NGSS method- ologies, and many teachers are eager for educational units and techniques that fit NGSS standards.

The main focus of the UConn work- shop is the relationship of land use to water resource health, and the use of online mapping and other geospatial tools to help explore these relationships—particular strengths of the CLEAR team. The UConn campus and surrounding area provide an ideal outdoor laboratory to explore these concepts. Attendees sample three streams within about a mile of campus, all with very different characteristics based on the predominant land use of their respective watersheds—agriculture, urban, and forest. They then come back to the classroom, study their results, and compare notes to get a sense of the importance of land use in determining the health of a water body. Also used in the instruction is the campus itself, which has become a showcase of low impact development (LID) practices designed to reduce the impact of stormwater runoff on local streams. After learning about LID and touring the green roofs, rain gardens, and pervious pavements across campus, the participants visit a nearby campus build- ing and devise their own plan for LID installation. The workshop also introduces them to online mapping and watershed analysis tools that enable them to focus in on their own town, watershed or even high school campus, thus using their community waterways as a teaching tool.

Teachers leave the training with a wide variety of resources to help them in the classroom, not the least of which is their personal experience working through these topics with the Extension instructional team. In addition, the Neag members of the team have developed a 25-unit lesson plan that follows the educational progression of the workshop; teachers are encouraged to adapt all or part of the lesson plan for their use. Of the latest (summer 2018) class of 25 teachers, 100% said that the training was relevant to their classroom instruction, that the training was time well-invested, and that they would recommend the training to other teachers. Research is ongoing on how many teachers implemented all or part of the curriculum, and how it played out with their students. Although the project plan was for two workshops, they have been so well received that the team is holding a third TPL training in the summer of 2019 and is looking for resources that would enable them to continue this program for the foreseeable future.

Article by Chet Arnold

Risk Management Tools: Helping Connecticut Farms Grow

Horsebarn Hill at UConn
A view of Horsebarn Hill at sunrise on July 20, 2017. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

“Agriculture is inherently a risk filled profession,” says Associate Extension Educator Joseph Bonelli. “Utilizing risk management is a tool for farmers to minimize the impacts of threats they can’t completely control by reducing the impact of certain dangers on their farm business.”

UConn Extension has a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Risk Management Association (RMA) grant for farmers and growers, specifically focusing on crop insurance and its options. USDA offers fewer disaster assistance funds, and wants farmers to take a greater interest in managing their risks and related financial impacts. The program is designed to create a safety net for operations through insurance for weather incidents, pests, or a lack of market.

The beauty of the programming is that Extension educators can weave in other topics of interest in areas of risk management for farmers. Examples include production risk, plant diseases, or labor. RMA covers any practice that mitigates risk on a farm operation.

“I enjoy helping farmers develop solutions to problems,” Bonelli states. “I ask them what keeps them up at night. For many farmers its problems that risk management can help them mitigate. Extension helps farmers understand the tools that are available, and grow the farm for the next generation.”

Mary Concklin, Visiting Associate Extension Educator for Fruit Production and IPM, is the co- principal investigator on the RMA grant with Bonelli. An advisory board of 12 people meets annually to provide input on programming. Members of the committee include Extension educators, Farm Bureau, the Department of Agriculture, and industry organizations.

Programs offered include workshops and one-on-one sessions with technical advisors. The RMA program has a suite of educational resources. A video series was created featuring farmers from different sectors of agriculture discussing how crop insurance has helped their operation. A monthly e-newsletter was recently introduced. Each issue showcases a farmer, and provides tips that farmers can immediately put into practice.

Agricultural producers appreciate that RMA programs have an impartial approach, and are not trying to sell anything. Program instructors serve as technical advisors and a sounding board.

UConn Extension is part of a network of information through our association with other land grant universities and Extension systems, and brings in outside expertise as it’s needed by our farmers. Risk management is also incorporated into other UConn Extension programs for agricultural producers.

Connecticut farmers have experienced a tremendous shift from wholesale to retail marketing. The demands on farmers and growers to understand how to promote and market value added crops has added another level of responsibility, where before farmers only focused on production. Direct marketing brings another whole area of risk through product liability and competition.

Not all national crop insurance programs fit Connecticut agriculture. Farmers need to make an informed decision
based on the facts as to whether or not a policy fits their business, and should be purchased. Bonelli and Concklin provide feedback to USDA on the reasons why Connecticut farmers choose not to purchase insurance, with the goal of improv- ing federal programs available.

“We try to be on the leading edge of what’s new to help farmers be more productive and financially viable,” Bonelli concludes. “It’s rewarding that UConn Extension is part of the success and resiliency of farmers in our state. No one organization is responsible, we’re part of a team working with the farmers to grow their businesses.”

Article by Stacey Stearns

Cubes in Space: UConn 4-H Robotics Program

Granby 4-H members in front of rocket launchUConn 4-H is the youth development program of UConn Extension. 4-H is a community of over 6 million young people across America who are learning Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM), leadership, citizenship and life skills through their 4-H project work. 4-H provides youth with the opportunity to develop lifelong skills including civic engagement and healthy living.

Using STEM concepts, 4-H members develop, design, and practice their robotic skills through various local, regional, and national programs. In addition, the 4-H’ers maintain engineering journals of their robot design process in order to develop and strengthen their record keeping skills. Participants also demonstrate and hone their public speaking and research skills through competitions and presentations.

Members implement the values of the 4-H motto to Make the Best Better by improving their robot after practice and competition sessions.

Eight youth from the Granby 4-H Club along with their leader, Rachael Manzer, a UConn 4-H volunteer, successfully launched three experiments into space on a NASA rocket in 2018. Manzer is the STEM coach at the Winchster Public Schools, and leads youth in three robotics project areas as part of the 4-H curriculum.

Cubes in SpaceTM is a global competition designed to help students ages 11-18 develop curiosity, and logical and methodical thought. Selected participants launch experiments into space annually at no cost to the participants. The program is managed by idoodledu inc., and collaborates with the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s Wallops Flight Facility, NASA Langley Research Center, and the Colorado Space Grant Consortium.

It took the Granby 4-Hers approximately four months to write their experimental proposals based on their interest, long hours of research, and thinking. These proposals were then submitted to Cubes in SpaceTM where experts reviewed all applications. After making it through the first round, 4-Hers answered questions, revised their proposals, and resubmitted them for a second review.

4-H members note that they have benefited from participating in the 4-H Robotics Program by gaining and enhancing their skills; for example, in the area of spatial geometry or in programming using the C language. Also, these experiences have provided opportunities for them to demonstrate and strengthen their teamwork and cooperation skills in preparation for their future education and careers.

Final decisions were made after months of waiting. All three Granby 4-H proposals were selected as part of the 80 experiments chosen from the 450 total proposals submitted by youth from the U.S. and international locations.

The three experiments from the Granby 4-H Club included “Bees in Space” where honeycombs were launched, “Rubber Bands in Space,” and “Gallium in Space,” all of which were proposed by the 4-Hers themselves.

Bees in Space

The “Bees in Space” experiment studied if honeycomb changes shape during flight. Club members took pieces of honeycomb from the club bee hive to design the experiment. The research question was: Will
the honeycomb change its shape during a flight to space?

When colonizing a planet, a constant food source is necessary. Bees are necessary for pollinating plants which creates food and oxygen. When bees were first sent to space in 2009, the bee eggs did not hatch and the bees died. The bees likely used all their energy on the hive. To help the bees

preserve their energy, the team sent up a honeycomb to eliminate the need to build one. This experiment looks at if the honey- comb shape is strong enough to withstand a flight on a rocket.

Rubber Bands in Space

The “Rubber Bands in Space” group evaluated how rubber bands are affected by a microgravity environment by creat- ing a rubber band ball. Rubber bands are used by astronauts as part of their exercise equipment. This team hypothesized that if the rubber band ball is exposed to a micro- gravity environment, then the rubber bands will change and no longer be as effective or work at all.

They believed the temperature on the rocket space flight would melt the elastics together slightly, cool back down, and cause them to dry. The team thought the rubber band ball may not bounce as high as it did before, and it may bounce at dif- ferent angles instead of just straight up and down, especially if it melts.

Gallium in Space

Gallium is a post transition metal. What is so unique about this metal is that it has a melting point of 29.77 degrees Celsius (85.586 F). Gallium doesn’t occur as pure Gallium in nature, but as a compound with other metals. These compounds are

often used as semi and superconductors. On its own, gallium is a semiconductor. Gallium’s most similar alloys are used in LEDs and diode lasers.

Gallium is a soft metal and might change shape due to motions during space flight. If gallium doesn’t change shape,
it may be one of the best conductors of electricity used in space. The team hypothesized that gallium would change shape during space flight, due to heat when exit- ing the atmosphere.

All participants of the 80 selected experiments were invited for the launch at NASA Wallops Center in Virginia where they presented their experiments to an audience of 300 people that included NASA and Cubes in SpaceTM officials, other participants, teachers, sponsors, and family members.

Members gained valuable experiences through participating in the Cubes in SpaceTM project. 4-Hers learned the importance of working together, how 4-H and STEM fit together, and learned the process of doing research. The experience provided the Granby 4-H members with the opportunity to practice problem solving skills, answer their own questions, embrace their curiosity, and gain valuable experience in the world of STEM.

Article by Jen Cushman

Natural Pesticide Issues

pink roses in a natural garden in West Hartford
Roses in a garden in West Hartford. Photo: Max Pixel

As the gardening season gets underway, lots of homemade weed-killer “recipes” are cropping up on social media, usually containing some combination of vinegar, Epsom salts, and Dawn dishwashing soap. These are often accompanied by a comment such as “no need for pesticides or herbicides!” It may feel good to use familiar household items to control pests and weeds in your garden, but it’s important to understand the science behind such mixes – and the potential risks.

First and foremost, these mixtures ARE pesticides or herbicides. They are intended to kill a pest, in this case weeds.

Now, let’s look at the science:

Vinegar is an acid. At the right concentration, it damages by burning any part of a plant it comes in contact with. If the plant is in the ground, it does NOT get the root; many plants will grow back. It is non-selective, meaning it will damage any plant it touches, including desired ones. Household vinegar is 5% acetic acid; to be effective on anything other than tiny seedlings the concentration needs to be at least 10%. Horticultural-grade vinegar is 20% and can carry a “Danger – caustic” signal word, which is stronger than many other herbicides on the market.

Salts work by desiccating plants – again, all parts of the plant it touches. Salts, however, build up in the soil and can harm desired plants nearby. Since most homemade recipes need repeated application to be effective, the salts will build up. Epsom salts are touted because they contain magnesium instead of sodium, but too much magnesium will interfere with phosphorus uptake.

Dawn detergent is not a naturally-occurring substance. It, like any soap, is used as a sticker agent, helping the other materials stay on the plant longer. It contains methylisothiazolinone, which has acute aquatic toxicity and 1,4-dioxane, which is a known groundwater contaminant with carcinogenic properties.

These may be do-it-yourself recipes, but they definitely are not natural.

An additional issue with home recipes is the variability of the mix. Many don’t even have specific measurements. Also, because home remedies are often perceived as “safer”, a person may choose to increase the concentrations, changing the potential environmental risk.

Many of these recipes do indeed kill – or at least reduce – weeds and unwanted vegetation. But they also have collateral impacts, some of which may be significant.

The garden center shelves have changed in the last several years. There are now many naturally-derived pesticides on the market, which have been tested for effectiveness, are labelled as to their environmental impact and deliver a consistent product every time. They generally are safer to use and pose less environmental risk than many of the older synthetic materials – the same goal of homemade mixes. Look for products that are OMRI certified. The Organic Materials Review Institute is a nonprofit organization that provides an independent review of products, such as fertilizers and pest controls that are intended for use in organic production.

For more information, please contact the UConn Extension Master Gardener Program. Find the location nearest you at https://mastergardener.uconn.edu/ or email Sarah.Bailey@uconn.edu.

Article by Sarah Bailey, State Coordinator, UConn Extension Master Gardener Program

Connecticut Institute of Water Resources

photo of a stream taken by UConn student Molly Cunninghma
Photo: Molly Cunningham

What do taking a trip to the beach, testing a well, and planting a new garden have in common? You guessed it—water. UConn is home to a state-wide organization focused on providing Connecticut’s citizens with information and research about all the water resources we encounter in our daily lives.

As the state’s land grant university, UConn’s College of Agriculture Health and Natural Resources became the home of the Connecticut Institute of Water Resources (CTIWR) in 1964. The institute seeks to resolve state and regional water related problems and provide a strong connection between water resource managers and the academic community. CTIWR also shares water-related research and other information with the general public to bridge the gap between scientists and the community.

The institute is currently expanding and focusing more attention on community outreach with the arrival of new center director, Michael Dietz.

“Our goal is to increase visibility of the water research in language that the general public can understand and use in their daily lives,” says Dietz. “We want to become a one-stop shop for information about all kinds of water-related issues. Where can you go to get your water tested, up to date information about drought or water quality around the state, in addition to research reports and funding opportunities for scientists.”

Recent projects explored leaching of nitrogen and phosphorous from lawns, relationships between metals and organic matter in soils, and quantifying the impact of road salts on wetlands in Eastern Connecticut.

“UConn has some really talented water researchers from different disciplines who can help citizens in our state better understand issues that affect our water resources. Through CTIWR, we’ll make sure that these experts and citizens can come together, speak the same language, and learn from one another.”

Article by Jessica McBride, PhD

Connecticut Grown Strawberries Ripe for Picking

Connecticut grown strawberries in cartonsFresh from the field, Connecticut Grown strawberries are now ripening and ready to eat. Strawberries are the first fruit available in Connecticut and signal the arrival of summer for many residents who look forward to visiting one of the state’s pick-your-own farms.

“Visiting a Connecticut strawberry patch to pick your own is a wholesome, family fun activity,” said Bryan P. Hurlburt, Connecticut Department of Agriculture Commissioner. “This type of activity supports local farms and farm families while generating millions of dollars in agritourism for the state’s economy. And, the best part of it all is that you get fresh Connecticut Grown strawberries to eat at home.” 

While it’s early in the season, producers are reporting that picking is quite good. “Despite the amount of record breaking rain in April and early May, the strawberries crop is now experiencing excellent weather for maturing to ripening. The season is off to a great start and it appears that the production will be right in line for a successful strawberry season,” said Nancy Barrett, owner of Scantic Valley Farm in Somers, CT.

It’s a good idea to call ahead, or check the farms website, for daily updates as weather conditions impact availability. Sweet and juicy strawberries are also available now at farmers’ markets and farm stands throughout the state. Find one near you at www.CTGrown.gov/strawberry.

When ripe, strawberries smell wonderful and taste even better. As members of the rose family, this perennial plant is a good source of vitamin C, manganese, folate, and potassium. They are also loaded with antioxidants.

Strawberries should be plump and firm with a bright red color and natural shine. The color and fragrance of the berry, not size, are the best indicators of flavor. Once you get your strawberries home, wash them and cut the stem away to store in a cool place. If you plan to keep them in the fridge for a few days, wait to clean them until you plan to eat them. Rinsing them speeds up spoiling.

Strawberries can be used to make jams, jellies, shortcake, pie and more. They can also be pickled, especially when picked green or unripe, or frozen to use later in smoothies. Find more recipe ideas to create your own delicious dishes by visiting our Pinterest page at https://www.pinterest.com/GrowCTAg/.

Make plans to visit a Connecticut strawberry patch this weekend to create lasting memories and delicious, healthy dishes.

Article by Connecticut Department of Agriculture

Reducing Winter Road Salt Use

snow plow on a street in Connecticut during winter stormExtension educator Mike Dietz focuses on protecting surface waters with green infrastructure techniques in his research and Extension work. Mike has been involved in the development of the Green Snow Pro program, and he is the Director of the Connecticut Institute of Water Resources.

The scientific studies continue to pile up, and confirm the same thing: road salt is causing lots of problems in our streams and groundwater. The majority of salt applied is sodium chloride, also known as rock salt. In the absence of a new “miracle” deicer, salt will continue to be the most cost effective product for the foreseeable future. Therefore, the only way to reduce the impacts will be to reduce the amount that gets applied, while still keeping surfaces safe for travel.

New Hampshire began the “Green Snow Pro” voluntary salt applicator certification program to train municipal public works employees and private con- tractors. This training includes information about the science of salt, the downstream impacts of salt, how to properly apply given weather conditions, and how to calibrate equipment. An additional key component of the New Hampshire program is limited liability release: a property owner who hires a Green Snow Pro certified contracted has liability protection from slip and fall litigation.

Given the success of the program in New Hampshire, the Technology Transfer (T2) Center at UConn gathered professionals from UConn Extension, Connecticut Department of Transportation, Connecticut Department of Public Health, municipal public works, and Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to adapt the program here in Connecticut. A pilot of the training was per- formed here at UConn in November 2017. UConn public works staff received a classroom and spreader calibration training. Mike Dietz maintains a monitoring station on Eagleville Brook downstream of campus. He was able to compare the amount of salt in runoff for the winter after the training, as compared to prior years (correcting for the number of storms). Substantial reductions were found: over 2,600 less tons of salt were used during the 2017- 2018 season, corrected for the number of storms. This resulted in a savings of over $313,000 in salt costs alone! A summary of these findings is currently under review at the Journal of Extension.

The statewide implementation of the Green Snow Pro program in Connecticut has begun: during the fall of 2018 the T2 center gave two separate trainings for municipal public works crews and more are being scheduled for this year. The group will continue to meet to work on the liability protection here in Connecticut, as well as expanding the offering to private contractors.

This effort has been a great collaboration of UConn educators, regulators, and public works professionals. The success of this program highlights the fact that education truly can have lasting environmental benefits.

Article by Mike Dietz

Evan Lentz: Intern Spotlight

Evan Lentz and Casey Lambert spent the summer of 2018 as undergraduate interns scouting for diseases and insects at vineyards and small fruit farms throughout the state with the iPiPE grant through the National Institute for Food and Agriculture.

iPIPE is the Integrated Pest Information Platform for Extension and Education. It’s a weather and pest-tracking tool for growers to use. The program uses technology to categorize endemic pests, users, and data. Extension Educator Mary Concklin has a two-year iPiPe grant.

“We collected information on farms, uploaded it to iPiPE, and shared our results with the growers,” Evan says. “I got to know many of the farmers and

their day-to-day routines. Some of them really cared that we were at the farm, and we were a resource to help with their problems.”

Evan graduated in May of 2019 with a major in Sustainable Plant and Soil Systems, and a minor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. He starts graduate school in the fall. “I highly recommend Extension internships to anyone, in any major,” he concludes.

Article by Stacey Stearns