MC Ag students nurturing 31 types of tomatoes

By on April 29, 2015

Like many area greenhouses at this time of the year, the Manheim Central High School’s Agriculture Education program’s greenhouse is overflowing with plants. The difference at the high school’s greenhouse is that right now there’s one type of plant, heirloom tomatoes, but with many varieties — 31 to be exact.

Daniel Shoemaker places the label on an heirloom tomato plant

Daniel Shoemaker places the label on an heirloom tomato plant

The 26-foot by 42-foot greenhouse to the rear of the high school at 400 Adele Ave. currently houses nearly 7,000 tomato plants that have been nurtured by about 50 students in the school’s ag ed department. Seeds are planted around St. Patty’s Day, and they’re tended by students who water, fertilize and repot them. About 2,000 of the plants will be sold during an Open House from 8 a.m. to noon on Saturday, May 2. The balance of the plants will be sold at the Landis Valley Village & Farm Museum’s Herb & Garden Faire from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday, May 8 and Saturday, May 9 (landisvalleyherbfaire.org). Four-inch potted plants are $3 each, and students will be handling sales at both events.

“This is a business, and it’s run like that. It gives students practical experience about working, managing or perhaps owning greenhouse,” said Deb Seibert, an ag education instructor.

Each February, two seniors are selected serve as greenhouse managers for the tomato project. The posts are currently held by Brooke Balmer and Jeanine Wagner. Balmer has been part of the ag education program and has worked in the greenhouse since she was a freshman, while Wagner joined the ag department this year.

Trinity Haggans repots an heirloom tomato plant.

Trinity Haggans repots an heirloom tomato plant.

“I worked in the greenhouse last spring, and really liked the hands-on aspect of it,” said Wagner. “It’s really neat to see the plants growing and to know that you had a hand in that.”

They both agreed that serving as managers has been a great experience.

“As managers we oversee the greenhouse operation; we make sure that supplies are on-hand to handle each step in the process,” Balmer explained. “Right now as we’re repotting the plants in preparation for the sales, it’s important that each individual plant has a label. So one of our jobs is to make sure that there are enough labels for each variety.”

Although tomato seeds are planted in March, Balmer said that preparation begins over a month before when the varieties to plant are discussed and then finalized.

Olivia Cottle repots heirloom tomato plants in the Manheim Central Ag Ed department’s greenhouse.

Olivia Cottle repots heirloom tomato plants in the Manheim Central Ag Ed department’s greenhouse.

“We decide based on what sold well the year before as well as suggestions that customers make,” Balmer explained.

Some of this year’s varieties have fanciful names such as German Lunchbox (a medium size beefsteak tomato that’s sugar sweet and resists splits), Crème Brulee (tomatoes are medium size and a deep caramel color with hints of chocolate; flavor is rich and sweet), Sunrise Bumble Bee (a sweet, fruity tomato that’s yellow-red with an orange swirl), and Garden Peach (fuzzy skin and pinky-yellow flesh).

The tomato project was started by Seibert in 2003 after attending an Agriculture in the Classroom workshop at Landis Valley, where she learned about the museum’s heirloom seed project. She decided to design the spring greenhouse project around heirloom seeds. The greenhouse is used through the rest of the year for other plant projects.

The first year there were about 12 varieties of tomato plants. Now the count is up to 31 varieties. Wagner explained that that tomato project is self-sustaining. Seibert said that MCFEE (Manheim Central Foundation for Educational Enrichment) grants have helped fund equipment purchases for the greenhouse.

Funds raised from the sales of the plants are used to purchase supplies for next year’s project including heating oil (a critical element for any greenhouse), seeds, potting soil, plastic pots and fertilizer.

“Each stage of the plant’s development requires a little bit different fertilizer,” Balmer explained, “and it’s important to use just the right amount of fertilizer for that stage.”

Manheim Central ag ed students (left to right) Kyle Burrichter, Holly Musser and Stephanie Balmer repot heirloom tomato plants in the greenhouse in preparation for sale during two upcoming events. (Photos by Rochelle Shenk)

Manheim Central ag ed students (left to right) Kyle Burrichter, Holly Musser and Stephanie Balmer repot heirloom tomato plants in the greenhouse in preparation for sale during two upcoming events. (Photos by Rochelle Shenk)

Funds from the sales of the plants are also used to defray the cost of community service projects and FFA scholarships.

“We do have a lot of people who purchase tomato plants from us year after year,” Seibert said. “I think that customers and supporters of our program appreciate that we’re training people for the future of the industry.”

For further information about the Manheim Central High School’s Ag Ed Department’s heirloom tomato sales contact Seibert at 664-8503 or visit manheimaged.org for the complete list of varieties and event details.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *