The University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s The Biggest Grower Competition brought Nebraska high school students together virtually with a new, experiential learning gardening opportunity amid a summer of COVID-19 shutdowns.
The university’s Department of Agronomy and Horticulture and Nebraska Extension, with support from the Nebraska Department of Agriculture’s Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, successfully concluded The Biggest Grower Competition Aug. 7.
Forty-four students representing 37 Nebraska high schools were organized into 11 virtual gardening teams. Each student was given a combination hoe-cultivator and a t-shirt. Those who needed seeds and plants received them upon request. Participants chose their own combination of vegetables, herbs and cut flowers, and planted and cultivated their 8-by-10 garden or container garden, through harvest.
Garden mentor Christine Barta, a Nebraska horticulture major, met weekly with participants and virtual teams. Students received educational content and participated in discussions about garden activities, challenges and ideas over the 10-week, summer competition.
Topics included how to prepare the garden, soil quality and improvement, irrigation, plant nutrition, environmental stress, insects and diseases, and distribution channels and marketing of fresh food products. A highlight each week was Christine’s Cool Concept in which the students had an opportunity to try something new or unusual they could incorporate into their garden. A few examples of concepts students said they enjoyed the most, were companion planting, soil improvement with bio-char and cooking a new recipe with their recent harvest.
According to the final student surveys, the program was a success. Participants reported they had fun, learned a great deal about growing and caring for their own garden and enjoyed being a part of a like-minded community. They also appreciated their garden mentor—particularly Barta’s patience and instruction.
“I really enjoyed being able to have a mini-community to encourage me to put in the time to make use of the resources I have in my own backyard,” Lillianna Hollister of Norris said.
The results of the 2020 competition were announced Aug. 10. Team Broccoli with 493.68 pounds of produce was The Biggest Grower and included Whitney Schmidt, Twin River; Lacy Williams, Lakeview; Erin Oldemeyer, Norris; and Emma Codr, Lincoln Southeast. Each winning team member was awarded a $50 Amazon gift card. Team Tomatillo took runner-up with 342.76 pounds of produce and included Westin Adams, Norris; Emily Kleinschmit, Wausa; Julia Clausen, Millard North; and JingMing Yu, Lincoln East. The top three individual winners were Schmidt with 459.65 pounds of produce; Raeana Spech, Omaha Burke, with 221.53 pounds of produce; and Kleinschmit with 139.435 pounds of produce.
The competition was based on participation in weekly activities, productivity data recorded in the Growers’ Leaderboard, amount of harvest consumed and the amount distributed.
One eligible junior or senior will be awarded a $1,000 University of Nebraska–Lincoln scholarship in October. Applicants were asked to write a 350- to 500-word essay on how The Biggest Grower competition affected them and their community, or the use of specialty crops in their future. They must also enroll in one of four majors within the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture in the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources at Nebraska. Applications are currently in review.
“The program will be offered again in 2021 and is sure to be even more exciting as more content will be added,” said program coordinator Stacy Adams, associate professor of practice in agronomy and horticulture at Nebraska.