Harrisburg - Far from the crowds clamoring for milkshakes, honey ice cream, fried mushrooms or potato donuts, in a floor above those admiring the butter sculpture or riding the carousel, several 4-Hers quickly, quietly evaluate potatoes. Lots of them.
The Susquehanna Room in the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex's newly renovated Keystone Conference Center, hosted the State 4-H Potato Grading Contest. The room featured several hundred potatoes used in a contest built to develop critical thinking skills. Only 21 4-Hers competed this year - an abnormal one, according to contest organizers. Recent years have seen 50 to 60 contestants.
Kelly M. Weisner, a Lehigh County extension educator, coordinates the 35-year-old event and offers the educational tools to help students and leaders develop their potato judging skills.
"As the extension units face funding cuts, fewer agents and 4-H club leaders and volunteers are familiar with potato judging. We've developed a series of presentations that teach kids how to evaluate potatoes," she said.
The potato grading contest has several components. Contestants sort through 100 potatoes, identifying which ones meet US. 1 grade standards. Then they identify various potato defects, like shriveling, misshapen potatoes, sprouts, cracks or cuts, bruises and sunburn. Afterwards, the 4-Hers judge two classes of potatoes.
These classes are developed like other judging contest classes: 4 potatoes or potato selections are evaluated and placed best to worst. In fact, potato judging can be a good stepping-stone to meats, dairy or livestock judging.
"The constant repetition and practice is the same in many forms of judging," said Garrett Richardson, 16, of Smithport, Indiana County. He is the newly-elected president of the Marion Center Handy Helpers 4-H Club that competes in the potato judging contest. He is also the president of the Northern Livestock 4-H Club, which participates in several livestock judging contests throughout the state. He raises hogs, sheep and dairy cattle.
"It's fun," said Richardson about the contest. "Potatoes are interesting."
Each county can bring one "A" team of four people, but they can bring an unlimited number of "B" teams. "Some counties have brought eight or nine 'B' teams," explained Weisner. If an "A" team wins the contest, they cannot compete against teams next year. They can participate in the contest again, but in the "Honors Section," which adds several more components to the contest.
Honors contestants must estimate the weight of a selection of potatoes. Points are deducted for each ounce above or below the true weight. The premium pack segment requires contestants to choose the ten best, most uniform potatoes from a selection of available potatoes. Finally, plate judging classes have honors contestants evaluate and rank four plates of five potatoes based on uniform size, shape, appearance, condition and freedom from defects.
Larry Yeager, a retired extension educator for Adams County, has been working with the program since its inception. "This contest gives kids a chance to learn and hone their decision making skills. On one table alone, they evaluate 100 potatoes on the clock - hopefully in under three minutes. These 4-Hers must learn to make split-second decisions."
But it's not just an exercise in character-building. "As grown-ups, these 4-Hers can make informed decisions about potatoes. The waste and appearance issues we evaluate in grading have effects in real-life production agriculture," said Yeager. "Defective potatoes can be very wasteful in the food manufacturing process."
Potato grading can have a profound effect on youngsters well before adulthood. "I know some kids who will look over potatoes in their kitchens at home and say, 'Hey Mom, that's not right!'" laughed Yeager.
The Pennsylvania Farm Show is the largest indoor agricultural event in the nation, featuring nearly 6,000 animals, 10,000 competitive exhibits and 209 commercial exhibitors. The show runs Jan. 8-15 at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex & Expo Center in Harrisburg. Admission is free and parking is $10. Visit www.farmshow.state.pa.us for details.
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For photos of the event, click here.