Smith’s mission: Grow perfect pepper

Teacher honored by state agriculture nonprofit

  • Mascenic agriculture and horticulture teacher Mike Smith receives the Teacher of the Year award from N.H. Agriculture in the Classroom Coordinator Debbi Cox on April 15. Courtesy photo

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Monday, April 25, 2016 7:0PM

After being named Teacher of the Year by a nonprofit dedicated to incorporating agriculture in schools, Mascenic teacher Mike Smith isn’t ready to rest on his laurels.

Smith was recognized not only for his work in agriculture and horticulture classes, but also for integrating student agriculture into the district’s food classes and in landscaping the school grounds. Smith received the award from N.H. Agriculture in the Classroom in a ceremony in Nashua on April 15.

One project highlighted by the nonprofit was the salsa garden he and his students have been cultivating in the school’s recently constructed greenhouse.

The garden provides ingredients used in the school’s Family and Consumer Science classes. But this year, Smith plans to expand on that idea, in order to teach students about hybridizing plants and developing new ones – specifically with chili peppers.

“I love Mexican food and chili peppers, though I like taste over heat. We could have picked any vegetable for this project, but the chili pepper has an aura about it. The range of heat and taste is so enormous that it makes for an interesting template to work off of,” said Smith.

Smith, who is also the track coach at Mascenic, was struck with the idea when his girl’s Junior Olympic cross-county team made it to nationals, which was held in New Mexico.

“The chili pepper plays such a prominent role in the food culture down there,” said Smith. “It’s such an important role to the area, not just culturally, but economically as part of the agricultural crop.”

And New Mexico is also home to the New Mexico Chile Pepper Institute, a concept Smith has decided to bring back to New England and Mascenic.

Pairing with his other employer, Barrett Hill Farms in Mason and his own homestead Marisol Farm, Smith and his students will be studying various chili peppers and their hybrids to see how what grows best in the New England climate.

“I’ve already told my wife that our own garden will be overrun with hot peppers,” said Smith.

Students in Smith’s horticulture class will learn how to hybridize peppers and study how the new plants grow in the climate. They will also study how hybridization affects flavor. Cultivating hybrids is a multi-year process, said Smith, so most students will never see the results of their crosses – but they will be able to see the results of previous years, and careful record keeping will allow them to build off the successes or failures of their predecessors.

“We’d love to have a pepper worth something that we could put the Mascenic name on,” said Smith, “but really it’s about learning the process.”

And for those that are interested in the process or entering an agricultural field as a career, Smith will be setting up independent studies for students that want to follow the process to completion.

Ashley Saari can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 244 or asaari@ledgertranscript.com.