Potato planting teaches many lessons

Potato trench
The trenches are almost ready for potatoes. Photo courtesy of FARM Institute

By Pat Waring - May 10, 2007

Spring is bustin' out all over at the FARM Institute, to borrow words from a "Carousel" tune, and it isn't even June yet. Two weeks ago, sheep nuzzled their playful lambs in the sunny back meadow and a goat huffed and puffed in the barn, preparing to give birth, while a tractor labored through the field, tilling a strip of earth for community gardens. Ground that had only days before been brown after the rains and chill of April was showing hints of green. Every sign pointed to the fact that planting time was on the way, and several groups of Island school children took time away from their classrooms to get it started. A few days later, the farm welcomed community members to join in the potato planting.

More than 100 enthusiastic young gardeners from the Edgartown, Martha's Vineyard Charter, and Tisbury schools came with teachers, snacks, and lots of energy. The youngsters came one or two classrooms at a time over the course of several days. They piled off the buses, enjoyed a snack and visited with the animals before getting down to work. A number had been at the FARM Institute before and were happy to renew acquaintances with staff and critters alike.

Nora Kennedy
Nora Kennedy, the FARM Institute's education manager, out in the potato patch. Photo by Danielle Zerbonne

Then it was off to the job, with some of the children cutting and preparing the potatoes for planting while others headed to the waiting field.

This was no token task they were doing; it was real work, and will result in real food being produced. As Nora Kennedy, education manager at the farm, and Hollye Florio, assistant summer programs director, called out instructions they grabbed hoes and shovels which towered above their heads and set to work with gusto, digging trenches in the rich, freshly tilled earth.

"Work as a team, work with your neighbor," urged Hollye. "Oh, it looks so good! You're wonderful potato diggers."

When it came time to plant, the children fanned out along the trench and, with careful delight, deposited their potatoes before reluctantly turning back to their buses.

Inspired by the off-Island Read for Seeds program, the potato planting project incorporates hands-on education with classroom learning about subjects ranging from farming to world hunger. Nora Kennedy had heard about Read for Seeds, in which school children get cash pledges for participating in a read-a-thon, then purchase seeds and raise produce for the hungry. After consulting with Island teachers and considering youngsters' already-busy schedules, she came up with the idea of a used book sale instead of a read-a-thon to raise funds. Classrooms participated by gathering used books which were then displayed for sale in the barn, the income going towards purchasing seed potatoes.

Patrick McDonough and Ben Grooters-Lukowitz
Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School students Patrick McDonough (left) and Ben Grooters-Lukowitz (right) prepare the potatoes for planting at the FARM Institute. Photo courtesy of FARM Institute

Nora visited each classroom and discussed gardening with the students as well as the problems of hunger. To help them understand, she asked if they liked to eat and how they felt if they missed a meal.

"Does the whole world have all the food that people need?" she asked them. "Does America? Does the Vineyard?"

She explained to them that even here on the Island some people do not have enough food, and they talked about the many reasons that people can suffer from hunger.

Dylan Rice and John Michael
Preparing trenches for potatoes are Dylan Rice (left) and John Michael during the community planting day. Photo by Danielle Zerbonne

The groups talked too about the benefits of eating locally grown, even home-grown food, and before leaving each classroom Nora and the children planted a potato in a pot, to prepare them for the farm expedition to come.

In September, when school begins again, the children will return to harvest their crops.

"I really think that's going to be the best part," said Nora. "When the kids come back and see how many potatoes we can dig up."

Almost all of the potatoes grown will be donated to the Island Food Pantry and to off-Island food banks, bringing the nutrition and deliciousness of home-grown food to many, many tables.

The FARM Institute is offering Community Supported Agriculture shares, community gardening opportunities, and The Work Income Sharing Program (WISP) which will is enlisting Island youth to grow produce for donation and sale. For more information on these and other FARM Institute activities, call 508-627-7007.