Teaching kids about potatoes focus of Michigan man
Today, less than 2% of Americans are farmers by profession. Most American children have little inkling of what it takes to grow a crop, nor do they appreciate how vital the practice is to society. In most cases, no one has ever made it an emphasis to teach them.
A Michigan man is aiming to change that.
For nine years, T.C. Collins has been working with area schools in Ypsilanti, Michigan, to teach kids about growing potatoes and other crops through practice. His efforts started humbly through a science project for his daughter in which they gave her classroom 10 potatoes to plant and grow.
“I asked the kids if they knew where potatoes came from and they said, ‘McDonald’s,’” Collins recalled. “Then I asked if they knew where tomatoes came from and they said, ‘ketchup.’ … That’s when we came up with the idea.”
‘A lost science’
Collins’ idea to give kids potatoes to take home and plant was well received. The following year, other teachers asked Collins to do something similar with their classrooms. After handing out 10 potatoes the first year, Collins gave nearly 200 out the second year.
When Marilyn Gatewood, program service manager for Washtenaw County, got wind of the project, she began connecting Collins with other area schools. To date, Collins has worked with seven schools and taught thousands of children — all the way from preschool and Head Start to high school — about farming and gardening through hands-on experience.
Collins manages more than 20 small gardens and farms in southeast Michigan and into Ohio and also runs Willow Run Acres, a community-focused initiative to provide farming instruction.
A typical in-classroom teaching session includes Collins bringing potatoes he’s cultivated beforehand and some soil to give to the kids, along with instructions to take home and a pamphlet with information on potatoes and his Willow Run Acres program.
One such session occurred at Lincoln Model Elementary School in May. Over the course of two hours, a half dozen classes were rotated in, with Collins spending about 20 minutes with each group of kids.
“The first thing we’re going to do is roll up our sleeves because we’re going to be working in dirt,” he told each class before going into detail about how potatoes grow below ground and how the plants should be cared for.
It was the first time Collins had been to Ypsilanti Lincoln’s Model Elementary. Principal Kerry Shelton, who grew up on a farm herself, was thrilled with how Collins interacted with the kids and with how engaged and attentive they were to the instruction.
“I’m impressed with how interactive the kids can be in the process, and how much language they’re getting out of it,” Shelton said. “They’re learning about roots, soil and what it takes to make this potato grow. These kids are so unfamiliar with farming, in general.”
Collins sees farming as “a lost science” in the educational system. His ultimate goal would be to have farming added to STEM-focused (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) curriculums.
“It’s very important for kids to learn about and hopefully develop a passion for farming and gardening,” he said. “It teaches sustainability.”
Turning negatives into positives
As soon as Collins was old enough to walk and talk, he was helping in the family garden. His great-grandparents began teaching him about growing as young as 2 years old.
Planting and growing has been passed down through generations in Collins’ family, stemming from his ancestors being slaves in Virginia.
“My ancestors were part of the slave trade,” he said. “They learned about growing cotton and tobacco, and that’s where it all comes from. My family has always farmed.”
Collins’ passion for food grew into a career, but a little further down the consumer chain. As an adult, he became a chef.
He would likely still be a chef today had it not been for a near-fatal car accident and beating some 15 years ago. Collins was sitting at a red light, when he was rear-ended by a drunk driver.
“I was unconscious from the accident and this woman who hit me pulled me out of the car and began slamming my head into the pavement,” he said. “Apparently, she was so drunk, she thought I was the one that ran into her.”
The incident caused multiple head injuries that resulted in brain damage. Aside from the mental effects and recovery, Collins has decreased motor functions. His hand and arm movements have improved over time, but he can’t use knives anymore, leaving him unable to go back to cooking professionally.
Farming has been therapeutic in more ways than one, he said. The repetition movements have been good for his motor skills and doing something productive has helped him mentally.
“It is like therapy to me, it really is,” Collins said.
The school and community outreach program have taken it to another level, however. Collins is passionate about teaching farming lessons to kids who would not otherwise be exposed to them.
Not only are more schools getting on board, Collins was recently recognized as a community leader by the city of Ypsilanti. He was appointed to a three-year term on the city’s sustainability committee.
“I really want to grow this program and reach as many people as we can,” he said.
— Editor’s note: T.C. Collins purchases certified seed when planting potatoes, although he added it’s been costly and, at times, hard to get what he needs for his program. He would welcome any assistance from seed providers who might be willing to help. Collins can be reached at 734-717-4849.