TYLER - A new generation of potential gardeners was carefully cultivated by agriculturally-aware FFA underclassmen from Russell-Tyler-Ruthton High School Tuesday morning.
The collaboration between RTR fourth-graders and RTR high school agriculture students is in its third year, long-time fourth-grade teachers Deb Mikkelsen and Teddy Smidt said.
"The kids look forward to it," Mikkelsen said. "We were supposed to have done this last week, but after six inches of rain, it was just too wet."
RTR ag teacher Brian Boomgaarden oversees the one-acre garden planting project as part of the district's ag education program. Organization was key in keeping the planting going with so many hands involved.
"It's been going real good," he said. "We got the high school kids organized this morning, told them some important things so we could get into it when the fourth-graders arrived. The elementary teachers know what to expect and the high school kids have been through it a couple of times so it's easier now."
About 40 elementary school students teamed up with high school partners to primarily plant vegetables.
"I think it's a great way to teach them how to plant a garden," RTR junior Carly Fritz said. "It's fun to see their faces when they actually accomplish something on their own. And usually, you'd think girls wouldn't want to get their hands dirty, but they have more fun than you think they will."
The day began with planting rows and rows of potatoes, followed by onions.
"We'll have a lot of potatoes," said RTR junior Megan Williams, who is also president of the RTR FFA chapter. "They're planted two inches apart and there are 25 rows of them. We'll also plant cabbage, pumpkins, sweet corn and beans."
Planting a garden not only teaches responsibility, teamwork, environmental awareness and healthy choices, it also stresses the importance of patience. A year ago, the decision was made to plant a vineyard as well, which will take three years for everyone to begin seeing the fruits of their labor.
"Brian shows them what they need to do," Smidt said. "Every year, the garden area gets better and there are new things planted, like the vineyard with all the grapes. We're hoping to make wine in the near future."
Fourth-grader Tucker Benson said he had never helped plant a garden before.
"We're going to do it this summer though," Benson said. "We're going to plant corn in our backyard. It'll be this big corn in a little garden."
Wearing nearly-matching sunglasses for the occasion, fourth-graders Katie Ekema and Madison Witte seemed to be enjoying themselves while helping plant potatoes Tuesday.
"It's fun," they both said in unison.
Planting a garden was new to both Witte and Ekema, but like their classmates, the duo quickly picked up on the repetitive techniques.
"You have to plant potatoes two inches deep and with the brown side up," Ekema said.
"Then you have to bury it and pack it down," Witte added.
Fourth-grader Luke Johnson was especially glad to be outdoors during the last week of school.
"It's nice because we had our last field trip get canceled," he said. "It was something to do with the animals."
Johnson said he hadn't helped plant a garden before, but that he had helped plant flowers.
"I'm not much of a gardener yet," he said.
Fourth-grader Cade Jorgensen said he was familiar with planting gardens.
"I like it," he said. "My dad owns a garden. He plants vegetables."
RTR sophomore Dana Schaefer reminded her fourth-grade partners Morgan Bloom and Rhaegyn Petersen to "put the point side up" when planting onions.
"They have to be six inches apart," Petersen added.
The project has improved, Boomgaarden said, as it's evolved in the past three years.
"The first year was just a trial thing, hit and miss, trying to figure out what is going to work for us and what isn't," he said. "Last year, we kind of had a plan. You just improve all the time."
Since the plot has nearby access to water, the FFA chapter is planning even more improvements in the future.
"We're adding some technology, as far as putting in a soaker hose system," Boomgaarden said. "We're going to do some knotting over here with our vines and stuff. We have water accessibility, so we'll be able to water. Last year, we were fine. We had ample rain. But you don't always get to count on that every year."
The garden will have to be weeded, probably about twice a week, FFA member Cheyenne Kaffenbarger said.
"We hire a couple of kids to help keep the garden clean in the summer and if there is any harvesting that needs to be done," Boomgaarden said. "Most of what we try to grow is harvested in August and September."
FFA officers will provide additional assistance throughout the summer whenever needed. In the fall, the same students, as fifth-graders, and FFA members will work together again to harvest what was planted in the spring.
"You just want to make sure it's successful for the kids and this fall, come back and help harvest some stuff," Boomgaarden said. "It might spur a little interest for some life-long learning for some of these kids and give them an opportunity to do some things they've never done before."
All of the harvested produce is collected and used in the district's lunch program.
"Everything we harvest here goes back to the lunch program, so it's a win for the students," Boomgaarden said. "It's also good public relations for the (FFA) chapter and the community really thinks it's a good deal. It's a positive thing for everybody."
The last of the peppers harvested a year ago and then frozen, he said, was just used up this past week.
"We get a lot of food off of the garden," Mikkelsen said. "It's always nice to have the fresh fruit and tomatoes instead of canned stuff."
Every year, Boomgaarden notices that more and more young students are less and less familiar with where their food comes from, so educating them, in a hands-on way, has become extremely important in today's society.
"As a society, we've kind of let ourselves down by getting away from doing things like this and not knowing where our food comes from," he said. "We talk about that every year, but this is a way of actually doing something with the kids and letting them learn some things."