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Students Learn Research Principles While Raising Winter Tomatoes

(Download a PDF of the news release.)

KANNAPOLIS, NC – Students at high schools in Rowan County are immersed in a learning experience that takes them beyond their textbooks. Instead of reading about scientific test trials on agricultural crops, they are actually performing the trials themselves, with oversight from N.C. State University faculty member Dr. Jeremy Pattison. He is a faculty member of the Department of Horticultural Science and the Plants for Human Health Institute, located at the N.C. Research Campus.

Students will sell their winter tomatoes at Father & Son Produce in Salisbury.

Greenhouses at four high schools – South Rowan, West Rowan, Jesse Carson and East Rowan – are teeming with greenhouse tomato plants that are part of a regional study, “Optimizing Winter Tomato Production.” These plants also provide an added bonus: after they are harvested and weighed (one of the data points students need to record) they will be sold as a fundraiser. In February, these local, greenhouse tomatoes can be purchased at Father & Son Produce at 1774 Sherrills Ford Road in Salisbury.

Dr. Jeremy Pattison meets with students in the South Rowan High School greenhouse.

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.

According to Pattison, they designed the trials to mimic what they would do if they were part of an actual tomato production program. “We’re training the next generation of scientists. This increases the rigor of their curriculum, exposing them to real-world science. We’re focused on teaching the scientific method and its applications in agriculture,” said Pattison.  “We teach them scientific principles such as generating a hypothesis, experimental design, data collection and analysis, and summarizing results. We want them to understand why we set up a trial a certain way, how to collect data and how scientific conclusions are made.”

On any given day, students with their scientific journals will be studying their plots and taking notes on what they observe about their respective trials – notes such as the weather, insects, damage to the leaves and other general observations. As many as 400 agricultural students from the four schools interact with Dr. Pattison and the research program.

Students discuss data with Dr. Pattison.

“I like the experience the tomato project gives to students like me,” said MacKenzie Catanese, a South Rowan student.  “I have been very active in the school’s FFA and agriculture program, but it has always been on the animal side of things.  This project gives me the opportunity to have a more well-rounded agriculture experience.”

David Overcash, agricultural education teacher at South Rowan, also believes the project enhances the classroom lessons.

“This project helps our students by allowing them to fully explore their curriculum and go well beyond instructional minimums in the area of science and research,” Overcash explained. “Students are exposed to possible career opportunities which they may have never dreamed existed in the field of agriculture.”

Mr. David Overcash, right, discusses tomato research plots with South Rowan High School students.

The Rowan Salisbury School System was awarded a $10,000 grant through America’s Farmers Grow Rural EducationSM, sponsored by the Monsanto Fund. This program is part of a broad commitment by the Monsanto Fund to highlight the important contributions farmers make every day to our society by helping them grow academic opportunities for their youth. The grant funded improvements to the research infrastructure, which includes an irrigation system and other greenhouse technology upgrades.

“In terms of precision, this grant enabled the high schools to step up their ability to get scientific-grade scales to grade crops and plots,” explained Overcash.

Along with Pattison, Joe Hampton, superintendent of the N.C. Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services’ Piedmont Research Station, has been instrumental in serving as an advisor to the research projects.

“Math and scientific principles are brought to life in the process of comparing the different scientific treatments at each of these schools,” explained Hampton. “But it is the life skills of cooperation, teamwork, problem solving and observation that develop as well.”

After all the data is collected, an advanced placement statistics student will have the opportunity to work with Pattison to provide statistical results so the students can then interpret and determine the important findings of their studies.

Growing a crop that they then can sell will help introduce discussions on marketing and economics. The project will generate revenue for the schools’ FFA program. In addition, a portion of the crop will be donated to Main Street Mission in China Grove.

Dr. Jeremy Pattison (left) and Mr. David Overcash (right) work with students on their “Optimizing Winter Tomato Production” project.

“We believe this is a great model for involving students, while enhancing their math and science skills in a real-world research environment,” said Pattison.

A video that showcases how Agriculture Brings Science and Math Alive” highlights how Pattison, local high schools and the Piedmont Research Station work together.

About Plants for Human Health Institute
The N.C. State University Plants for Human Health Institute is part of the N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis.  The campus is a public-private venture including eight universities, the David H. Murdock Research Institute (DHMRI) and corporate entities that collaborate to advance the fields of nutrition and health. Learn more at

About the Monsanto Fund
The Monsanto Fund, the philanthropic arm of the Monsanto Company, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening the farm communities where farmers and Monsanto Company employees live and work.  Visit the Monsanto Fund at

Writer: Leah Chester-Davis