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Shovel Ready Plant Breeders  

Frank Morton

Philomath High Teacher Jeff Mitchell Sows Them Year By Year

The first time we met Jeff Mitchell, he stepped from a bus load of teachers he had brought to visit our farm. He was a beekeeping biology teacher from Eddyville, Oregon, out in the dark crux of the Coast Range, in ‘89. These teachers were part of his summer employment gig, touring about with and teaching to teachers about science in the environment. I’m not sure how he found us, but his interests were beneficial insects and their flower hosts, our crop diversity, the melding of the wild and native species into our farming designs, and the interplay between our livelihood, biodiversity, and the environment. About six years later, he called us again, now from Philomath High School, and he had a little idea for teaching Botany students the nature of food.

Nowadays, nobody gets through Philomath High Botany without a deep lesson in Lactuca sativa. The Shoulder to Shoulder Lettuce Trials have become a substantial learning unit, and every botany student expects to go through a Trial By Lettuce under Mr. Mitchell, to help the Morton’s create ever better lettuce. The students know that this is not just school, this is science in the interest of better food and farming.

Jeff always calls me in mid-August to remind me that the 20th is his planting day. I always send him 20 lettuces, some of the old stuff, some of the new, and a couple of breeding lines or populations. When I drop the seed stash at the back door to the lab, there are sometimes a couple of students waiting there to begin the planting, though school will not officially begin until after Labor Day. By the first day of Botany class, there will already be an assignment waiting that is about 2 weeks old, and caring will begin.

In the student garden there are 14 raised beds, each tended by a 2-member research team. With these and a small greenhouse for their laboratory, these teams learn about uniform soil preparation and fertilization, seedling care and transplanting, randomization and controls in field research, aphids and slugs and Pithium as field variables, and the amazing genetic variation that we can observe in plants as mundane as lettuce. Over the course of 10 weeks and 4 scientific samplings that include randomized harvests, weights and measures, ratings of appearance, blind taste-testing, and the preparation of salad and dressing, the Botany researchers of PHS will teach themselves a lot of lessons in observation, care, field science, and collection of data from living, variable, objects of dire interest and subjective qualities (like food).

After the final data has been collected, each student prepares a research report which reflects the data as collected by the class concerning methods and materials, germination rates, growth rates, appearances, and flavor. These results are graphed out by students in individual ways, reflecting his or her own best ways of visualizing data, and each student provides his or her own conclusions regarding the worthiness of the varieties. My favorite exercise in these conclusions is the mental experiment conducted in response to the research question: Which of these lettuces would you breed together to create you own ”perfect lettuce?" Their answers reveal the depth into which this Trial By Lettuce carries these young scientist eaters.

What is unmistakable is the salad-loving passion that these teenage eaters discover. Many of them comment that before Mr. Mitchell’s Botany class, they never thought about food or where it comes from, especially lettuce and salad greens. But this class actually gets into the deeper meaning of where food comes from on a cultural and evolutionary level, and they never look at wild lettuce or head lettuce quite the same way again.

Printed in the 2009 WIld Garden Seed Catalog.

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