Heirloom today, gone tomato

By on May 2, 2018

MC ag students grow 4,000 tomatoes to sell locally

Manheim Central High School’s Ag-Ed greenhouse is a working greenhouse. And like many area greenhouses in the spring, it’s overflowing with plants. One main difference, the high school’s 26-foot by 42-foot greenhouse houses one type of plant ­ it’s filled with 4,000 heirloom tomato plants grown by students in the ag-ed department.

Students are preparing the plants which represent 31 different varieties for two major sales. The first is an open house at the greenhouse from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m., Saturday, May 5 (The greenhouse is entered off Hershey Drive). Second is the Landis Valley Herb and Garden Faire, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday May 11 and Saturday May 12. To learn more, visit landisvalleyherbfaire.org.

Although it’s the third year for the greenhouse open house, students have been selling heirloom tomatoes at Landis Valley’s event since 2003.

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

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 throughout the rest of the year for other plant projects. The first year there were about 12 varieties of tomato plants; and now the count is up to 31 varieties, many which have interesting names including Amish Paste, Dark Galaxy, Emerald Apple, Mortgage Lifter and Yellow Pear.

Manheim Central Ag-Ed student Alec Hess holds a Richard tomato plant, a plant with a Manheim connection. (Photos by Rochelle Shenk)

Each February two seniors are selected serve as greenhouse managers for the tomato project. That post is currently held by senior Ashlea Dull and junior Elsie Kline.

“The greenhouse is a hands-on learning opportunity,” Dull said. “It teaches us about time management and teamwork. We also learn about quality control, which is important since many of our customers are repeat customers,” Kline added.

Jacob Hess, a first-year ag-ed student from Donegal School District with a career goal of working in an agriculture-related industry, said he’s learned how to manage a greenhouse. He’s currently working part-time at Honey Bear Orchards near Annville.

Seeds are planted around St. Patrick’s Day. At that time, plant tags containing the name of the variety are also placed in the 1-inch pots. They’re tended by students who water, fertilize and repot them. Each plant in the greenhouse today is in a 4-inch pot.

While some varieties remain year-to-year, two or three new varieties are introduced. Seibert explained that new varieties are selected based on a trial over the summer; several varieties are planted in an outdoor trial garden. Ripe tomatoes are taste-tested, and if they live up to their description in the seed catalog, they may be added to the greenhouse.

One variety added in the past few years is Richard, and has a Manheim connection. Seibert said the seeds for this tomato have been donated by retired Manheim Central elementary school teacher Kathy Bower. She also served as executive director of MCFEE (Manheim Central Foundation for Educational Enrichment). The seeds are from tomato plants grown by her late father, Richard Yinger and the variety is named after him.

Bower said her parents Richard and Betty Yinger were farmers in York County and when they retired, they became “snow birds”, spending six weeks over the winter in Florida. In the early 1990s, they met another couple from Lemoyne, who grew delicious tomatoes. They gave the Yingers some of the tomatoes and they saved the seeds.

“My dad planted the seeds and then planted the tomato plants in his garden. He had about 25 or 30 plants, and we all enjoyed the tomatoes. Each year after that he saved the seeds and grew the plants. When my dad died in January 2005, my mom was concerned that no one would continue the tradition of growing dad’s tomatoes,” Bower explained,”I decided to continue the tradition. I always planted more than I needs, so I shared plants and tomatoes with friends and neighbors.”

She also purchased heirloom tomato plans from the ag-ed students. About for of five years ago, she shared the story of her dad’s tomatoes with Seibert and asked if the students would be interested in including the variety in their project if she provided the seeds.

“Deb and I started a new tradition. I was excited to provide another variety for the students to grow and though it would be a way to honor my dad. I save the seeds and deliver them to the high school every year. We never knew the name of the tomatoes so we named them after my dad,” Bower said. “I know if my dad were alive, he would be very happy to know that many people are able to grow and eat his favorite tomatoes. My mother is 93 and looking forward to eating some of Richard’s tomatoes this summer.”

Like the other varieties in the greenhouse, students have learned its characteristics. In addition to growing the plants, students also staff the two sales events.

“At Landis Valley people are interested to find out that we’re students and that the tomato plants are part of a hands-on learning project,” said Alec Hess. “They like to talk to us about the plants.”

Manheim Central Ag-Ed students (left to right) Ashlea Dull), Jacob Hess and Elsie Kline prepare heirloom tomato plants grown in the program’s greenhouse for sale.

Dull also likes the sales aspect of the project. She pointed out that since customers often ask for a variety to suit their specific needs ­ making sauce, slicing and eating fresh, canning or compact growing habit for a small space such a container on a patio ­ it’s important to know the specific variety or varieties to recommend.

Students working the two sales events earn $8 per hour in FFA credit. Kline said credit may be used to help defray the cost of attending FFA conferences or purchasing FFA jackets. Profit from tomato plant sales is used to help fund special projects such as installing landscaping around the greenhouse and community service projects.

Funds raised from the sales of the plants are also used to purchase supplies for next year’s project including seeds (this year seed cost was nearly $800), potting soil, plastic pots and fertilizer (each stage of plant development requires a different fertilizer).

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

For further information about the Manheim Central High School’s Ag Ed Department’s heirloom tomato sales contact Seibert at 717-664-8503 or visit manheimaged.org for the complete list of varieties and event details.

Rochelle Shenk is a correspondent for the Lititz Record Express. She welcomes your comments and questions at RAASHENK@aol.com.

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