Roots Run Deep When Planting New Ideas

Gretchen Mayer
Special to the Farm Forum

As so often happens, a teacher does not see the outcome of his or her work until many years later. The student graduates, and the teacher has to have faith that what knowledge they imparted will eventually make an impact.

The project that Spencer Cody is currently teaching has the potential to transform generations of families and here's why: due to budgetary constraints, school lunch programs are restricted in the variety of fresh fruits and vegetables that they can offer, or what Cody calls, "the celery stick and carrot diet." And children in the lower-income category often do not experience anything beyond what comes in a can.

Mr. Spencer Cody, Science Instructor for grades 7-12 at Edmunds Central.

In 2017, Cody, who is the Edmunds Central Science Instructor for grades 7-12, wrote a lengthy proposal to the South Dakota Department of Agriculture. He was awarded a multi-year grant that would expose students to a wider array of specialty crops, including lettuce, peas, and beans. The definition of a specialty crop is simple, "One that we don't normally grow."

"South Dakota's Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program has demonstrated through its own research that students exposed to fruit and vegetables through the program seek out these same fruit and vegetables outside of the classroom and heavily influence the purchases of their parents, as a result," wrote Cody.

After attending educational conferences, Cody purchased large mobile carts with decks of lights to grow these sometimes-delicate vegetables. The goal was, after perfecting the program at Edmunds Central, he would expand the curriculum to other schools. Which he did. With the backing of more than $91,000, his program is currently impacting fifty-six schools comprised of seventy-one classrooms from Sioux Valley to Rapid City. "This is not necessarily an Ag class," said Cody. "We have students in K through 12 participating. Initially I received about $60,000 and applied for a second grant of about $30,000. The first grant was for three years and the second was for an additional three years."

The light cart. High school students experimented with different levels of fertilizer, learning that too much will kill the plants.

The cart itself was the greatest expenditure. After that, individual school maintenance of the program would be limited to soil, seeds, and replacement bulbs - easy enough to incorporate into a school's tight budget.

The mobile carts have eight trays and a growing area of 160 square feet. Students are expected to not only plant and maintain their crops but also to collect and analyze data.

After the first year, the student involvement grew exponentially and currently, state-wide, close to 1200 students are busy planting and collecting data.

What was the biggest surprise for Spencer Cody? "Normally you don't see a lot of plant science in the younger grades, but I discovered that there's really a lot of interest out there. The plant science classrooms are really a small percentage of participants in this program. In terms of carry-over, I'll always be there as a resource for them and the light carts they have will last for years."

The first-grade students at Edmunds Central chose one vegetable they liked and one that was different, or that they'd never had before.

Cody has been a teacher for eleven years. This is his second year at Edmunds Central.

The long-term objective for the program? "To increase consumption and knowledge of specialty crops. The science aspect is the most rewarding part of it. There are a number of classrooms who wanted to cover it, but didn't have a window." Literally. No window, no sunlight. Go figure. Something so simple limited the teachers' ability to show children how to grow their own food.

Ms. Jackie Malsam, first-grade teacher at Edmunds Central in Roscoe reviews with the students what they have learned, prior to planting their seeds.

The twelve students in Ms. Jackie Malsam's first grade at Edmunds Central are learning about such things as asparagus, alfalfa, and broccoli. "Remember how I told you there are things in the soil like vitamins?" she asked. "Nutrients!" they shouted.

Each student planted fruit and vegetable seeds in two clear plastic cups so that they could watch the roots develop. "You picked one that you love and one that is different or something you've never tried before."

The kids could barely contain their excitement: "I can't believe we're actually doing this." And, "I'm going to make pumpkin pie."

Once the seeds are planted and watered they will go into the light cart. "What do we call that?" asked Ms. Malsam. "Incuvator!" said one. "It's like an oven but not as hot," said another.

"When you are eating corn or peas, what part of the plant are you eating?" "The seeds."

The students planted and carefully watered their seeds in clear plastic cups so they could watch the roots develop.

In the high school they are taking the learning to new levels by experimenting with fertilizer. Some is good, too much and you'll fry the plants.

By the time these enthusiastic first-graders are in Mr. Cody's classroom, they may teach him a thing or two.