Thursday, June 9, 2011

Agriculture and Forestry Day

Today I spent the day with hundreds of school children from grades 1, 2, and 3, teaching them how potatoes grow.
     I was running late for work and had to go to the bank so I called the office to let them know that I would be late. It seems that I was needed to be in early because I had been volunteered for something. My call was put through to the marketing guru and she tried to explain what was happening but really, I was just to get the stuff off my desk and get there by 9:30. On my way.  
     When I got to the office, I asked for directions to where I was to go and grabbed the posters and plant and bag of potatoes that were on my desk. When I got there, my table was empty and waiting for my arrival.
     It seems that the Potato Board was a part of a larger event with Ag Canada, Farm Safety, Forestry, 4-H, and others for an Agriculture and Forestry Education day being put on by the Agriculture Sector Council (of which I am the Chairman. Go figure that I’d be outta the loop on both counts.)
     I had a chance to glance at the information that I was to inform the students but I still really didn’t know what I was about to embark on. I couldn’t just read the information from the sheet so I paraphrased and learned to fit it all into the five minute window that I had the attention of each group.
     We started off by raising our hands if we had potatoes for supper last night. Usually about half of the group did. Then we discussed how they were cooked or prepared. Mostly mashed. Some had french fries, one or two were baked.
     Then I started with the potatoes that I had brought with me and asked what the little knobbily-bits were on the potatoes we had on display. Not very many of the kids knew what the eyes were and when I told them they were eyes, they all asked if potatoes can see. One little guy held up three fingers and asked the potato "how many fingers?"
     I told them how you can cut the potato into smaller pieces and keeping at least one eye on each piece will ensure the potato "seed" will grow to become a plant. I mentioned that the potato farmers are now on the fields with their newly cut potato "seeds" and planting the potatoes in the rows that they see in the fields on their way home.
     Then I told them that in about three weeks time, the potato with the eye will sprout and showed them a small potato plant growing in a glass-sided pot. I showed them the roots of the plant and how the roots grow down and look "fuzzy" and the leafy plant grows up.
     I then told the kids that when they are on summer vacation, the plants are still growing and showed them with my arms in a V-formation above the pot approximately how big the plant would get. I explained that a flower will grow from the plant, just like in their home garden and asked what colour the flower might be.
     Yellow was always the first colour chosen and I wonder what type of psychology is behind that choice. The next colour choices were pink or red. Pink is one of the answers I was looking for, that and purple and white because those are the colours that I have seen on the potato fields in my area.
     I used the flower pot with the clear window and held the small potatoes that I had brought with me against the glass to give the impression that the tubers were connected to the roots and explained that now was the time (after the flower fell off the plant) that the potatoes started to really grow. With this demonstration of holding the small potatoes against the glass of the flower pot, I told them that from July until October when most of PEI’s potatoes are harvested, the potato will grow "this much" and held up a large potato bigger than my hand. Their little eyes would bulge at the site of this big potato.
     My next question to the group was to see if they knew how many potatoes one plant could produce. I got a variety of answers from one potato to a hundred million. I told them that a plant would ususally produce about 10 potatoes (which I knew I could be completely wrong but figured from my two weeks of potato harvesting experience, I wasn’t far off). So, if one plant could make ten potatoes, how many potatoes can 10 plants make?  what about the row of potatoes the farmer plants and times 10 potatoes?  Now times all the rows in the fields?  MILLIONS of potatoes! 
     That was about the time the whistle blew and off they went to the next station and I repeated the whole story again with the next group.
     I could now tell you all about the children that stood in front of me and surrounded my table and how they interacted or behaved but that is probably something that parents and teachers already know. All in all, a good day.
The science behind the story I told:
     As I write this, I am concerned about whether I was actually telling the proper story of how a potato grows. You see, I just started working for the PEI Potato Board a few weeks ago and I was only hoping the anything I told these children was right. I totally relied on my two weeks of seasonal worker employment on a potato harvester last fall and all of my ag experience and education for this spur-of-the-moment exercise in what I term is my "forte", that being agriculture communications.
     So I went to ask the experts (Greg and Scott) in the office next door. I was wondering about the potato blossom and when the tuber actually starts to grow. At first I thought that maybe because of the flower, the tuber didn’t grow until the flower was done blossoming but as the day progressed I was questioning that theory.
     It turns out, I was wrong. The flower really has nothing to do with the tuber’s growth but they do occur on the plant at about the same time. The blossom is all about seed set and since seeds are not an important part of commercial production, the flower is meaningless. The potato starts from the eye, which produces a genetic clone of the original potato plant and seeds are produced based on pollination from other plants and are capable of cross pollination between varieties.
     I also learned that early potatoes are actually based on days to maturity of each variety rather than just going out to the field and digging up small potatoes. The Jemseg potato variety is a short season plant, in that it takes about 60 days to maturity. The Russett Burbank is a long season variety of about 120 days to maturity.
     You can still dig your potatoes early and it wouldn’t make a difference to the "ripeness" of the potato (I think) but if you want a specific size of potato, then that is based on days to maturity of the particular variety.
     I still have a whole lot of other questions but it would take me several pages to write all of the answers so as I learn, maybe I’ll share my knowledge.
    So, for Agr and Forestry Days, I hope the children learned something that they will take home with them and share their experience. Who knows, maybe one day, one of these kids will look back on their school outing as something very valuable. 

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