By Sarah Pridgeon
It’s possible the word “potato” has never before been shouted with as much enthusiasm and in such quick succession as at the Crook County fairgrounds last week, when a group of fifth grade students knocked over tire stacks and scoured the soil inside, excited to see how well their tubers had grown.
The potato stacks were the brainchild of Beth Ellsbury as one of the projects undertaken by the Extension Office Learning Lab over the summer, says Sara Fleenor, Extension Educator.
“It’s a space saver, it’s something that you can do virtually everywhere – it’s urban gardening,” she says.
“We’re hoping in the spring to use the potatoes to grow seeds and then we’ll plant the potatoes so that they get the full scope of the experience.”
The learning lab is a new, permanent installation located at the fairgrounds, where growing season activities help kids understand more about food production, Fleenor explains.
“It’s intended to be a hands-on learning exercise for kids, whether in the elementary school or during fair. It’s just something for the Extension Office personnel and 4H to be using so that kids can learn where their food comes from,” she says.
“I really think it’s a worthwhile project and I think, as kids get farther and farther away from their food sources, it’s important that we bring them back and show them all of the steps necessary for food.”
Summer school kids planted the crops that were visible at the learning center during fair, Fleenor says.
“We had to replant from some hail and we had lots of deer problems, so we’ve got some of the kinks worked out hopefully for last year,” she grins.
Third grade students also had the opportunity to pick corn and make butter.
“The butter they made from cream and salt, shaking it up and putting it on the corn they just picked,” she says. “We’re trying to do some life cycles and also life skills – that’s what 4H is all about, the hands-on learning.”
The greenhouse teaches where plant-based foods come from, while short-term animal projects at the fairgrounds showcase meat production.
“We take the school groups through there if we can to show them the pigs and sheep and explain where that food goes also,” Fleenor says.
“We’re hoping to partner with the Sundance FFA with their new ag advisor and increase our visibility and what we can do in our community and our schools and around town.”
The long-term goal for the learning center is to continue the gardening projects each year, both inside the greenhouse and outside.
“We would also like to have a walking path with a native plants garden, so that people can see what grows locally and to make it a pleasing spot for people to come. We’re hoping it will be a draw for out-of-town visitors, like a mini botanical garden in a way, so that people can see what is available in our area,” she says.
How much the garden will grow will depend on the financial outlook, she explains.
“We’ve applied for several different grants, so it all depends on funding sources. For right now, we’re waiting to see what we can get or we’ll just continue with what we have for right now and just keep trying,” she says.
“We don’t have water directly to it, so we’re using the water from the campground at the fairground. We need some money to be able to dig a water line and put a hydrant right there. The commissioners and fair board are in agreement, we just need some money to do it.”
If the community would like to get involved, Fleenor says, suggestions are always welcome, as are donations of time or money.
“If you want to participate in any of our growing or grow your own little square out there, we can help out. We want it to be something that people use and is worthwhile and useful, and that it’s used,” she says.