LAUREL SPRINGS-Strolling along a tiny patch of dirt at the Upper Mountain Research Station, Travis Birdsell grins as he shows off the tiny plants that could one day be a major cash crop for local growers.
“These little guys are butternut squash,” Birdsell, an agricultural agent with North Carolina Cooperative Extension, said showing off a tiny green gourd. “But it might be easier to think of them as a kind of mountain sweet potato.”
Despite being tasty, loaded with nutrients and relatively easy to grow in areas like Ashe County, winter gourd varieties like butternut squash aren’t fully understood. Birdsell said a two-year specialty crop block grant, worth some $90,000, just might change that and open up a lucrative future market local farmers might be able to take advantage of.
“I’ll be honest with you. My personal goal is to see these things grow better here in the mountains than they do elsewhere,” Birdsell said. “And that might actually be the case. You’re talking about potentially opening up an entire new market that people here can exploit, and that’s pretty exciting.”
An outdoor test lab
Birdsell said the butternut squash variety trial, at least in its current form, is in its second and final year. Two parallel trials are ongoing – one at a Piedmont based research station in Salisbury – and a local version at Upper Mountain in Laurel Springs.
Established in 1944 and siting on roughly 450-acres at about 3,200 feet above sea level, Birdsell said Upper Mountain is a perfect test bed to figure out the best methods and times to harvest butternut squash.
“We’re looking for the best varieties for these growing conditions,” Birdsell said. “What varieties yield the most, what’s the most consistent on size, what’s the right size to harvest and we’ve got a couple of different sizes people are looking for, whether that is wholesale to grocery stores or market to farmer’s markets or roadside stands.”
The point between having parallel programs here and in the Piedmont, Birdsell said, is to come up with enough data to craft solid recommendations for growers across the entire state.
“You might have things that outperform here versus down east, and you want to be able to let people know that if you can,” Birdsell said.
Packed with nutrition
Butternuts are a kind of winter squash, but they’re really from the same family that includes other gourds and crops like pumpkins, Birdsell said.
But where pumpkins are primarily decorative, Birdsell said butternut squash are grown mainly to be consumed, so its edible varieties where current research is focused .
“They’re absolutely loaded with nutrition,” Birdsell said. “We learned in the first year of the trial that out of all 22 varieties, even the worst ones, we were able to achieve 22 percent of your recommended daily allowance of vitamin A in a 1/2 cup serving,” Birdsell said. “It went all the way up to 100 percent, for a day, in 1/2 cup serving.”
The tasty gourds might also include substantial amounts of Vitamin C, along with smaller smaller quantities of calcium, iron, Vitamin B-6 and magnesium.
The other thing Birdsell and company have helped uncover? That Vitamin A content in butternut squash actually increases after harvest.
“We were able to increase beta-Carotene and total vitamin A content by 50 to 100 percent – just by storing it,” Birdsell said. “So we found out that out just by holding them after harvest for nine weeks.”
There could be an app for that
Birdsell said commercial scale crop growers must be focused on each of the variables that affect their finished product. What crops you’ll grow, where you’ll grow them, the date you plant them and the date you harvest can all be critical factors of a successful – or miserable – season.
That’s why a portion of Upper Mountain’s ongoing research includes a harvest timing component, Birdsell said.
“One interesting thing we’ve found but you can also cut these open at the same time and use a colorimeter to gauge the hue of the flesh color and, by extension, nutrient content,” Birdsell said. “There had been a study done years ago, but they didn’t have the statistical confidence they needed to really make sweeping statements.”
But ongoing research now includes more than 400 data points, Birdsell said.
“In a few weeks we’ll be able to show a poster that shows a 78 percent correlation between hue and internal nutrient content,” Birdsell said. “In the future, we hope that will allow the potential to create a smartphone application where growers and consumers can cut these things open right there in the field, or look at them in the supermarket, and compare that against the app and you’ll know what the nutrient content is.”
Why does this matter here?
Because Ashe County and the High Country just might have the potential to be very successful at growing winter squash.
Less than a decade ago, local growers began producing pumpkins at commercial scales. Since then, countywide pumpkin production has skyrocketed to some 900 acres annually, according to Birdsell, roughly enough to fill to the brim the same number of semi-truck trailers.
That specialty crop is worth more than $5 million to local growers annually, Birdsell said. That’s a figure that’s dwarfed by the more than $85 million in annual revenue local growers bring in annually through the sale of Christmas trees, but it’s also a figure that has grown each year.
As it turns out, the High Country’s climate and soil is primed for the production of pumpkins and, by extension, butternut squash. Birdsell said the research station proved that last year when it produced a 43-pound butternut behemoth that Birdsell said is the largest he’s even seen.
That prize winner was a novelty – a typical commercial butternut squash might weigh two-and-a-half pounds – but it illustrates the fact that gourds have no trouble adapting to this area, Birdsell said.
Plenty of challenges remain
Birdsell said local growers have yet to embrace the growing of butternut squash, but he’s hopeful they’ll do so in the future.
“Right now there’s too many unknowns, but that’s what we’re here for, why we’re doing this,” Birdsell said. “Hopefully we can give somebody the guidance they need to get something like this off the ground.”
While pumpkins and butternut squash might take easily to the area, Birdsell said growing them commercially is still a resource intensive endeavor. The commercial production of butternut squash for human consumption also comes with additional costs, he said.
“You’ve got to go through additional certifications and a yearly audit, and that tacks on additional costs,” Birdsell said. “They’re not prohibitive, but it is an additional cost over growing something like a pumpkin that people are just going to carve at Halloween.”
Reach Adam Orr at 336-489-3058.