By Sue Moore
Putting a million-dollar solution for what kind of potatoes to grow in 2018 in the hands of elementary school students might seem like a crazy idea to most farmers. But that’s exactly what Walther Farms did when they asked 400-plus students at Schoolcraft Elementary School to recommend the best variety the farm should plant this spring.
It all started as the school’s Strategic Partnership for Learning when Jason Walther, president of the Three Rivers-based company and a Schoolcraft school board member, turned the decision over to the classroom. He envisioned it as an exercise in math and science for the students.
Their charge was to taste test three varieties of potatoes that the 15,000-acre farm could grow to take the place of two varieties management meant to discontinue. After the taste test findings, each grade was tasked to carry out a particular evaluation.
Kindergarten counted the number of months that the potatoes were able to stay in storage before they would rot.
First grade plotted where the fields were and what type of potato each field grew last year.
Second grade created a graph to plot yield per acre from each field and then listed data in order from least to greatest.
Third grade calculated how much fertilizer was used in each field and with each type of potato.
Fourth grade designed and organized the taste test and also calculated the marketable yield and fertilizer efficiency data for the project.
For the taste test, students from kindergarten through third grade gave their opinions. The fourth graders eliminated variables by:
• Cooking all the potatoes at the same temperature.
• Potatoes were boiled and served warm.
• Potatoes were all cut the same size approximately.
• Every taste-tester was given a cup of water.
• All potatoes were served with the skin on.
• Names of potatoes were withheld to the tasters.
The three sections of fourth graders, led by teachers Kristin Caroselli, Sheryl Stephen and Taelor Wedel, had the younger students enter their taste test favorites into an iPad so it could easily be calculated. The three kinds chosen for the experiment were Caribou, Dakota, and Reveille. These are not exactly common names to the shopper when choosing what to buy in the store but they are in the russet family. In fact, Walther Farms is a potato supplier to the local Wal Mart and Meijer stores and different potato chips manufacturers.
The decision was as closely guarded a secret as an Oscar winner. It wasn’t known to Jason Walther or any of his hundreds of employees until they gathered for the company’s annual meeting at the Radisson in Kalamazoo in January. Fifteen of the fourth-grade students who had shown outstanding leadership during the project were chosen to make the presentation in front of a ballroom full of Walther Farm employees. Gabby Peterson, a fourth-grade student from Wedel’s classroom, was chosen to prepare a PowerPoint presentation that appeared on the big screen in the room, while 15 students had speaking parts to describe the process they went through to declare the winner.
Drum roll: Reveille won and when it was announced, Walther took the microphone to proclaim that they would order 1,000 pounds of seed that very day. “This variety has a desirable and unique flavor and texture for baking, boiling and salads,” he said. “I was impressed with how well the students performed the parameters in the study. It confirmed my beliefs. Long-term, we will replace our mixture of different varieties, replacing Norkotah first and increase the Reveille by at least five times the acreage.”
This classroom exercise was just one of several envisioned for Schoolcraft Schools that bring real-life business problems for the students to try and solve. Another one is in the planning stage with the Schoolcraft Historical Society. They hope to involve the middle school students in history of the village, according to Harriett Swartz, the president of the community-based nonprofit.
Walther Farms has been in the potato growing business since the 1940s, beginning in the thumb area of Michigan. It is now a third-generation business headed by family members who moved to the Schoolcraft area to locate the best land for growing potatoes. They now farm some 15,000 acres in Michigan, Indiana, North Carolina, Georgia, Colorado and Nebraska. “Potatoes have every nutrient a person needs to eat in order to survive,” Walther said. They take three months to grow, four to five weeks to harvest and can be stored up to six months without rotting in climate-controlled barns.