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New UNR Department Chair Researches Hydroponics, Urban Agriculture

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Omaye_S_2014_02By Maggie Cowee

The Department of Agriculture, Nutrition and Veterinary Science (ANVS) at the University of Nevada, Reno recently named a new chair. The department, which prepares students for careers as agriculturalists, nutritionists, and animal health care professionals selected Dr. Stanley T. Omaye to serve as Interim Chair.

Omaye’s unique background includes degrees in chemistry, pharamcology and nutrition and a research record that reflects his interest in advancing human health information. Past research studied the effects of antioxidants on cardiovascular disease, health effects of environmental pollutants including cigarette smoke and methods to improve food safety for vulnerable populations.

More recently Omaye’s work has branched into small scale and urban food production, focusing on comparing hydroponic and traditional soil-based growing systems for differences in yield, nutritional content and taste. This includes a current research project examining hydroponic production of raspberries and strawberries, two popular high-value foods currently grown on a limited basis in Nevada. So far Omaye and his team have found that berries can be grown successfully in a hydroponic system and may offer nutritional advantages over berries grown in the soil.

The berry project, like much of Omaye’s work, is collaborative, driven by community need, colleague projects, and student curiosity.

“Students ask, ‘How do we answer this question?'” Omaye said, “and the project goes from there.”

He strives to include the farm community into his research, developing projects that allow his colleagues and students to “Learn from the farmer as the farmers learn from us.” In this case, Omaye is working with Jacobs Family Berry Farm in Gardnerville. Berries from both systems have been tested over time in Omaye’s sensory testing lab for sugar content and taste and have found that early season berries have higher sugar content, giving them a sweeter taste, while later season berries are higher in polyphenols, making them taste more tart. This information can help farmers market their products more efficiently to the right customers over the course of a season, as certain consumer groups will prefer the sweet berries while others will prefer the tart.

The relatively new ANVS department was formed following the recessionary budget cuts of 2010 when three formerly separate departments were combined into one. Prior to that, faculty in the three departments mainly focused on their own discipline. But by combining resources, Omaye sees potential.

“Agricultural science, animal science and human nutrition integrate well for problem solving,” Omaye said. “Particularly for farm to plate.”

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