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It's one of the most common staples on the American dinner plate, and chances are that in the future you may be buying a tomato that was, at least in part, designed by high school students in Rowan County.
Fresh tomatoes are hard to beat, but they aren't in the fields around here just yet. But you can find them, ripe and ready to be picked in this high school classroom.
Dr. Jeremy Pattison is from North Carolina State University and the North Carolina Research Campus. He's working with the agricultural class at South Rowan High School taught by David Overcash. And Wednesday was harvest day.
"We took them from the seed and grew them all the way as you can see here," agriculture student Haley Shore told WBTV.
Students like Haley aren't just picking tomatoes, they're expanding the knowledge of how to grow a better crop. Students are involved in a learning experience that takes them beyond their textbooks. Instead of reading about scientific trials on agricultural research, they are actually performing the trials themselves, with oversight from N.C. State University faculty member Pattison, with the Plants for Human Health Institute at the N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis.
Four schools in Rowan County – South Rowan, West Rowan, Jesse Carson and East Rowan – are growing tomatoes as part of the research trial. The project also ties in with the growing interest in local foods.
"We're actually doing some cutting edge research in our greenhouse at South Rowan," Shore added.
"They are the ones generating the knowledge base that isn't found anywhere else," said Dr. Jeremy Pattison.
The students planted the tomatoes and have been watching them grow. They take weights and measurements, combining math, science, and agriculture in a way that is truly hands on. And what's happening here could make a difference on your dinner table.
"When you go out to eat a tomato you want the biggest one," Shore observed. "You want the reddest one, that's just how we shop."
Growing that bigger, redder tomato takes a lot of research.
"It's really to see other people excel," Pattison said. "Allowing my science and my abilities to impact other people in my area."
Students generate a hypothesis, collect and analyze data, then reach real scientific conclusions. Not only could lead to a better tomato, but also a ripe opportunity at a job in agriculture.
"I really enjoy the hands on aspect of it," said Shore.
The tomato project is going on in four Rowan County High Schools, involving up to 400 students, each one looking at a different of growing better tomatoes.
The tomato project is an outgrowth of a strawberry data collection project the students participated in with Pattison, who is a strawberry breeder, during 2012. Because strawberries don't begin yielding until April, Pattison and the teachers developed an experiment studying winter greenhouse tomato production. Each of the four schools is growing four different varieties, which they planted in November. Each school is responsible for studying a specific horticultural practice.
South Rowan High School is studying sucker control and its effect on fertility and yield. West Rowan is studying fertility with different amounts of nitrogen. Jesse Carson High is studying different pot sizes and how that affects plant growth. East Rowan is studying different transplant sizes to determine how that may impact yield.