Calhoun County Sweet Potato Challenge: How sweet it is...
Gardeners love the versatility of the sweet potato plant. High in beta carotene, vitamins E and C, iron and potassium, the entire sweet potato plant is edible; however, most people prefer only the tuber. Sweet potatoes grow well in Alabama, and they can be planted in a garden, in a raised bed or in a large container. Homeowners often plant the vine to add color and texture to a landscape.
This year, the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, working with Bonnie Plants, offered the Sweet Potato Challenge for 4-H’ers, ages 9-16. The project is part of the Alabama 4-H Grows Garden Project that gives youngsters a variety of summer and fall gardening experiences.
For this first Sweet Potato Challenge, Calhoun County had 72 students excited about participating. These 4-H’ers ranged in ages from 9-18 and came from both rural and urban settings. Sweet potato plants were distributed May 13-15. Students planted and observed their potatoes for 18 weeks, keeping journals and photographs of their progress. On Sept. 21, they brought their harvests to Cane Creek Community Garden to be judged at the annual Calhoun County Fall Fest.
To make sure Calhoun County children had the opportunity to be a part of the Sweet Potato Challenge, the Coosa Valley RC&D Council sponsored the program. This allowed the Calhoun County Extension Office to provide four Bonnie sweet potato plants and a T-shirt for each participant, as well as prize money for winners.
At home, students selected a gardening site that received adequate sunlight. They could choose to plant in a traditional garden, in a raised bed or in a container, but their space had to be large enough for the plants to grow properly. Students were encouraged to get a soil sample, to make sure their growing environment was the best it could be.
After planting, students recorded the date and time of planting, as well as the air and soil temperatures and moisture levels. They were also encouraged to take pictures of their plants. For 18 weeks, they checked on their potatoes, recording weather conditions and precipitation, and then attaching photos to their journals.
Jayden Luhn, a fifth-grader at Alexandria Middle School, said he enjoyed working with his potatoes and found them easier to grow than cabbage. “The hardest part was remembering to water them every morning and making sure no bugs were eating on the leaves.”
Simon Hines, a seventh-grader from White Plains Middle School, expressed amazement.
“The hardest part for me was keeping the vine from spreading over the yard,” he stated. “Being able to take a small plant in your hand and watch it cover a giant area was awesome. I kept wondering how many potatoes were in the dirt!”
ACES supplied information on how these young growers should harvest their potatoes. For example, the materials gave procedures for digging potatoes carefully to protect the skins from injuries, and handling and storing procedures to ensure better flavors.
Once the students had harvested their potatoes, they carefully brushed them off and moved them to a warm, dry, well-ventilated place for two weeks, so the potatoes could cure and the skins would harden.
This Sweet Potato Challenge was a program put on by the Calhoun County 4-H Centennial Youth Initiative Team; therefore, all 4-H staff members were involved: Carmelita Davis, Administrative Secretary/4-H Secretary; Stephen Faughn and Crystal McPherson, County Extension Agents; Jennifer Gann, 4-H Foundation Regional Extension Agent; and David West, County Extension Coordinator.
“We work as a team to deliver 4-H programs in Calhoun County,” said West. “We want to promote agriculture and make sure our children experience growing something. Kids need to have the wonder and amazement of watching a plant or an animal in our food system thrive and grow.”
At the end of the project, the official weigh-in was held at the Fall Festival. The RC&D Council provided prizes for all winners. Children received cash awards for the largest by weight, prettiest and ugliest potatoes. The most attractive basket of sweet potatoes was also recognized.
This first Sweet Potato Challenge offered hands-on experiences and engaged Calhoun County 4-H’ers in understanding what farmers and gardeners must do to grow safe, healthy food. It also provided an exciting “getting-their-hands-dirty” gardening experience they will never forget.