Five questions with a research farm superintendent


Horticulture Research Station superintendent Nick Howell inside a hoop barn full of lettuce varieties. Photo by Christopher Gannon.

Nick Howell grew up on a farm in northeast Madison County, where the family operation included cattle, hogs and Christmas trees. He had more than his fill of livestock as a kid, the smells especially. But raising trees stuck with him, leading him to study horticulture at Iowa State.

Name: Nick Howell
Position: Superintendent, Horticulture Research Station
Years at ISU: 36
Education: B.S. in horticulture (1985) and Master of Agriculture (2015), Iowa State

He started working at his alma mater right out of college, running the now-gone horticulture garden north of the power plant for 10 years and then Reiman Gardens for its first decade, developing it from bare ground. Since 2006, he's been superintendent of the Horticulture Research Station a few miles north of Ames, 230 acres of university land where a wide variety of researchers stage their work and dozens of students each year learn by experience.

The research station is a busy place, annually home to as many as 100 projects. That was even true last summer, when 71 projects were running despite the obstacles -- first the pandemic and then the derecho, which knocked down 600 trees, six high tunnels and half the vineyard. Cleanup extended into the spring, repairs will continue this summer and replacement plantings will take years to establish, in the case of the trees.

Howell recently spoke with Inside Iowa State about the research station and his role managing it.

Since researchers oversee the station's projects, what does the superintendent's job entail?

The oversimplified version is I move people and equipment around. We're in constant communication with researchers to get an idea of what they need. We're not here to fully outfit research projects, but we do go to a lot of effort to make sure they get what they need. We generate about half of our operating budget, so some of it is about marketing. For the web sales and ISU Dining sales, we work out the strategies and hire interns to run some of these projects. A lot of the undergrads have little or no experience, so myself and the rest of the crew do a lot of training. So far this year, I have 62 people signed up for our annual safety training the first day of the summer. And that's a requirement: If they're working on this farm, even the faculty, they have to attend. Usually, I'm involved with all of the crews at some time or another, and sometimes more often than not.

Was the variety one of the appeals of working at a research station instead of a garden?

This morning I was putting up an electric fence around our turtle ponds with a graduate student. Yesterday, I was working with Dr. Ajay Nair to troubleshoot a trickle irrigation system for a lettuce field. Every day is something different. Every day, I learn something new. It's really kind of a wonderful challenge. This year, because of the derecho, we're doing a lot of extra construction, replacing the high tunnels that blew down. We're building a new orchard. We're planting six acres of sod for Jack Trice Stadium and some practice fields for 2022, which is pretty cool. 

What can you tell me about the field turf project?

We're planting this grass in three inches of sand laid over the soil, so the soil isn't disturbed or removed in the cutting of the sod and, from what I understand, it makes for a relatively cushy surface for the players so they don't have as many injuries. But when you grow stuff in sand, it does wear out eventually. And that's what's happened. It's just time for the field to be replaced. They can buy sod like that, but it is tremendously expensive and they don't have any quality control. By having it here and managing the production along with our turf specialist, Adam Thoms, they get complete control. It helps fund the farm, and they've funded an assistantship, which is outstanding. We're not here to make money. We're here to teach and do research.

Produce sales begin this week

The Horticulture Research Station produce sales kicked off this week with a fresh crop of various lettuces. Submit an order by noon May 20 to pick up your selections May 21 east of the Meat Lab, in the northwest corner of lot 39.

Are the produce sales continuing with curbside service this year?

Yes, absolutely. We had been doing it since 2014, but last year was our best year. The rest of the crops were destroyed in the derecho, but most of the web sales produce could be salvaged or were close enough to the ground to survive. The site is being updated and is going to be a lot easier to work with. I think it looks really good. The web sales were actually a project a class took on at first, and we took it to the next level after the class folded by turning into an internship opportunity for an undergrad. People love it, and it gives us a presence on campus we didn't have before. People know who we are. That's useful for all sorts of reasons.

Just over one-quarter of the station's land is tillable. Do you ever turn projects away because you've run out of space?

We never turn anybody away. We work to find an appropriate location for the project to happen. Our biggest limitation on this farm is water. We raised the water level in the lake 18 inches the first year I was here, and it's saved us about three times now. I used to think it was a travesty the land wasn't used more. But after managing between 75 and 100 research projects per year, I think it's fine. With the fallow land, we can do things like honey production. We used to grow soybeans and corn on unused land, but now we grow oats as a nurse crop for clover. We harvest the oats and let the clover come up so the bees have a nectar source in the fall. If you don't, during grape harvest the grapes are completely covered with bees trying to extract sugar from the berries. It makes everybody a little happier -- and a little safer, too. We make good use of the tillable land even when it's not being used for research.