By Karissa Minn, Salisbury Post
SALISBURY — Students at four Rowan County high schools are getting the chance to try hands-on agricultural research with some delicious results.
South Rowan, West Rowan, Carson and East Rowan high schools are taking part in a regional study on optimizing winter tomato production.
Dr. Jeremy Pattison, an N.C. State University faculty member at the N.C. Research Campus, is overseeing the project.
On Wednesday, he spoke to students from South Rowan High School about the scientific method and how it applies to agriculture.
When farmers start to grow a new crop, he said, they can call their local cooperative extension office for advice on the best varieties and methods to use.
“Where do they get that information from?” Pattison said. “From people who had done it before and tested it.”
Students from two classes harvested tomatoes Wednesday and collected data for the experiment.
First, they carefully measured the plants in their assigned plots (groups of three plants that have the same tomato variety and treatment). They then picked, counted and weighed the ripe tomatoes, sorting them into groups by size. This work will continue until all of the plants have been cleared.
The fruit of the students’ labor is being sold as a fundraiser for the schools’ FFA program. The locally grown greenhouse tomatoes can be purchased at Father & Son Produce at 1774 Sherrills Ford Road in Salisbury.
A portion of the crop also will be donated to Main Street Mission in China Grove.
In each school’s greenhouse, students are studying one of four horticultural practices to see which ones produce the most and the best tomatoes.
Dylan Briggs, a sophomore in the environment and natural resources class at South Rowan, said he likes the idea of doing experiments to help farmers produce more fruit and make more money for their families.
“I do have a small garden at my house,” Briggs said. “I was thinking that the best thing that we use, I might try it at my house and see if I get more yield from it.”
Pattison, an applied researcher, said this kind of scientific thinking is just what he wants to encourage. The students’ trials are designed to mimic what they would do if they were part of an actual tomato production program.
“Agriculture is the number one industry in the state,” Pattison said. “The reason we have a successful agriculture industry is because people support it on this end.”
South Rowan is testing “sucker control,” or a method of pruning meant to increase fertility and yield. Some of the plants aren’t pruned at all, some are pruned all the way up along the main shoot, and some are treated with an in-between method of sucker control used in outdoor fields.
West Rowan is studying three different amounts of nitrogen in fertilizer, Carson is studying pot sizes and East Rowan is studying transplant sizes. Each of these tests is applied to four varieties of tomatoes, and the factors that they’re not testing are set at a constant, middle-of-the-road level.
Students from various classes are visiting the greenhouses, studying their plots and taking notes on their observations. As many as 400 agricultural students from the four schools are involved, whether they’re directly participating in the project or just observing it.
David Overcash, agricultural education teacher at South Rowan, said the tomatoes were planted in November by horticulture students.
This semester, a level-one horticulture class and an environment and natural resources class are responsible for continuing the tests and harvesting the fruit.
“I think it’s enhancing the amount of information that they learn about the content of the courses,” Overcash said. “They’re able to explore the scientific method in a means that’s not as boring as they thought.”
He said agriculture careers are now trending less toward production and more toward research and development. This project can give students the skills they need for a career in that field or others, he said.
Jonathan Lee, a sophomore in the horticulture class, said the project fits right into his interests in hydroponics and germination — how plants grow.
“I didn’t know you could grow tomatoes in winter,” he said. “(Agriculture) will probably end up being a hobby for me. Nowadays, you have to grow your own food for your health.”
Briana Hampton, a junior, said that without the project, she would never have known a lot of what she’s now learning in the horticulture class.
Hampton doesn’t plan to work in agriculture; she actually wants to be a neonatal nurse. But there are similarities, she said, between what she’s learning in her science classes and her experience with the tomato project.
“Different environmental things affect the plants,” Hampton said. “If you use one kind of fertilizer, they might grow a lot faster than the one you don’t fertilize. … It’s just like people who live in different environments react to different things.”
For the benefit of students like Hampton, Pattison said he hopes to involve more science classes in these projects.
“Here, we’re getting ‘ag’ kids to see science,” he said. “I would like to get science students out here to see agriculture.”
The tomato project began as a winter alternative to one with strawberries that started in 2012, Pattison said. Students last year helped collect data for a research project with the N.C. Research Campus, but the berries don’t begin yielding until April.
When the Rowan-Salisbury School System was awarded a $10,000 grant through America’s Farmers Grow Rural Education, sponsored by the Monsanto Fund, Pattison decided to set up another project with winter tomatoes.
According to a research campus press release, the grant funded improvements to the research infrastructure, which includes an irrigation system and other greenhouse technology upgrades.
Joe Hampton, superintendent of the N.C. Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services’ Piedmont Research Station, is also serving as an advisor to the research projects.
After all the data is collected, the press release said, an advanced placement statistics student will have the opportunity to work with Pattison to provide statistical results so the students can then interpret and determine the important findings of their studies.
“They’re going through the process of conceiving of an idea, implementing an experiment and distilling a conclusion based on the data,” Pattison said. “I’m hoping to get them to say, ‘What’s the next question?’ ”
Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.