I Place This Class of Seed Potatoes 4-1-3-2 (1/21/2022)

This is the heading from an article that appeared in a local newspaper a while back.

Figure 1 Newspaper Article Heading

In what decade would you guess this article appeared? [A. 1930s] [B. 1940s] [C. 1950s] [D. 1960s] [E. 1970s]

In what state would you guess this article appeared? [A. Connecticut] [B. Maine] [C. Washington] [D. Idaho] [E. Maryland]

The answers are at the end of the Footnote.

Many years ago (1975-1982) I was on the agricultural education faculty at Purdue University. While supervising a student teacher in a northern Indiana high school I saw a plaque on the wall for potato judging. This amazed me. I had never heard of an FFA potato judging competition. Since then, I have occasionally stumbled across mentions of potato judging in the FFA and 4-H. In this Footnote let’s see what we can learn about potato judging in agricultural education.

Potato Judging – The Early Days

The Cornell Countryman (a publication of Cornell University) contained an article in the June, 1911 issue titled “High School Agriculture in New York State,” The article described the agriculture syllabus developed in 1910-11 for high schools teaching agriculture. One of the seven courses was Potato Growing and included potato judging as one of the lessons to be taught.

In February of 1915 fifty-one boys from the Phlox community in Langlade County, Wisconsin participated in a weeklong short course in agriculture. Potato judging was one of the topics covered followed by a potato show (The Wisconsin Agriculturist, March 11, 1915).

In North Dakota, the agriculture director of the East Grand Forks High School, H. E. Swift, was preparing two teams to compete in the Sixth Annual Farm Crops show to be held in Crookston, February 8 & 9, 1917. One team was to judging livestock while the other team was to judge corn and potatoes (Grand Forks Herald, January 18, 1917)

The March 24, 1917 issue of The Farming Business reported (p. 4) that the teachers of agriculture in Colorado had organized into the “Colorado Agricultural High School Teachers Association” and had developed a plan of work which included “4. To stimulate competitive grain judging, competitive beet and potato judging.”

The Potato Magazine (yes, that is the name of the publication) reported that a major potato show sponsored by the Minnesota Potato Growers’ Association was to be held in Grand Rapids in January of 1919. It was stated that “Boys’ and girls’ potato judging contests will be staged. One of these will be between teams comprised of five members each and others will be between individuals.”

In 1921 the Gresham Fair was held in Multnomah County in Oregon. There were 400 club members in attendance and a potato judging contest was one of the events.

An early reference pertaining to vocational agriculture students judging potatoes was in the publication New Jersey Agriculture, December 1924. The article was titled “Future Farmers Have Busy Time at College” and describes a three-day event that was hosted at Rutgers in October of 1924. Two hundred and fifty agriculture students and teachers were on campus to participate in judging contests and attend workshops. Potato judging was one of the events. Woodbine placed first followed by Salem, New Brunswick, Mt. Holly, Leonardo, and Newton. See Figure 2.

Figure 2 Vocational Agriculture Students Judging Potatoes in 1924 at Rutgers University.

So, what do you look for in judging potatoes? Below is the potato judging scorecard used in Wyoming in 1925.

Figure 3. Potato Judging Score Card, Wyoming, 1925

The references to potato judging listed above predate the establishment of the FFA and were in the early days of 4-H club work. The references were from New York, Wisconsin, North Dakota, Colorado, Minnesota, Oregon, New Jersey, and Wyoming. It appears interest in potato judging was widespread even before the FFA was established. But did the establishment of the FFA and growth of 4-H further spread the interest in potato judging? Or was potato judging limited to a handful of states?

The image below taken from the June 25, 1941 issue of Bangor (Maine) Daily News indicates Potato Judging was popular, at least in Maine in 1941. It was on par with dairy judging, poultry judging, and farm mechanics.

Figure 4 Bangor Maine Daily News June 25, 1941

An article from the Gettysburg (PA) Times indicates that 4-H potato judging was newsworthy. The Adams County 4-H team was the state champion in 1999.

Figure 5. From the Gettysburg Times, March 25, 1999.

The Past and Present of Potato Judging

Was potato judging in FFA or 4-H a big deal in the past (or presently)? The answer is a resounding “YES”! A search of Newspapers.com for “future farmers” + “potato judging” resulted in 1,274 matches and the terms “4-H” + “potato judging” yielded 2,956 matches. You might be surprised at the state with the most matches – Pennsylvania with 413 matches for FFA and 1,319 matches for 4-H. I was surprised to find very few matches for Idaho. The search data from Newspapers.com is shown in Table 1. However, a word of caution is in order. Newspapers.com indexes thousands of local papers but not all of them. Numerous papers are missing such as my hometown newspaper, The Lampasas [TX] Dispatch Record. Therefore, the numbers generated are a rough measure of the topic being researched.

Table 1 States with 25 or more matches for 4-H or FFA Potato Judging in Newspapers.com

State 4-H
FFA Matches
Pennsylvania 1,319 413
Washington 184 209
New York 151 80
Maine 144 174
Nebraska 141 1
Wisconsin 114 68
Louisiana 110 8
Indiana 71 3
Montana 64 12
Ohio 59 52
Kansas 52 5
Michigan 50 43
Vermont 41 25
Colorado 38 48
North Carolina 37 2
Oregon 32 18
Maryland 29 49
Missouri 29 1
Minnesota 26 2

Who would think potato judging would be thrilling? Yet, The Morning Call of Allentown, PA (January 14, 1960) reported “The 4-H potato judging contest is always a thriller. This year it pitted 11 teams from the top 11 producing counties against each other.” The Lehigh team placed second which was a major improvement over their tenth place finish in 1959.

Prior to the late 1960s, 4-H clubs in North Carolina were segregated. The African American 4-H Clubs enthusiastically engaged in potato growing and judging, but the potatoes they grew and judged were sweet potatoes. An article titled “Halifax Youngster Wins District Yam Show” appeared in the Rocky Mount (NC) Telegram on February 29, 1960 (See Figure 6).

The article identified the champion sweet potato growers and also stated the Stoney Creek 4-H Club won the sweet potato judging contest. The 4-H potato judgers from Perquimans and Beaufort counties placed second and third. [Note: North Carolina has historically been a national leader in sweet potato production. According to the USDA Agricultural Statics Service, North Carolina has been ranked first among all 50 states since 1971. So, it would make sense to judge sweet potatoes in North Carolina.]

Figure 6. Rocky Mount (NC) Telegram, February 29, 1960

When was potato judging most popular? Potato judging enjoyed its biggest popularity in the 1930 – 1960 era. As 4-H worked on being more than a club for rural students and agricultural education/FFA focused on more than just farming, one can see a decline in potato judging. See Figure 7.

Figure 7. The popularity of FFA and 4-H Potato Judging over time

Do any states still have potato judging competitions? At least one state has a state-level FFA Career Development Event (CDE) in Potato Evaluation. That state is Washington. The Idaho FFA is considering starting such a CDE.

Figure 8. FFA Potato Judging in Washington State. Source – Columbia Basin Herald, Moses Lake, Washington. November 18, 2014.

In Washington, each team has five members. In the potato evaluation event students:

  1. Judge 2-4 classes of seed potatoes. Each class consists of four plates of seed potatoes. Each plate holds four seed potatoes. Each class of seed potatoes is judged using the 1-2-3-4 system. At least half of the classes are Russet potatoes.
  2. Grades 100 potatoes using U.S. #1, U.S. #2, and cull designations.
  3. Gives oral reasons on the grades of 10 potatoes. There is a 2-minute time limit. For each potato, the contestant identifies the grade and gives five reasons for it being that grade unless it is a cull. Only one reason is required for culls.
  4. Identifies potato blemishes. The student examines 10 potatoes and identifies the blemish for each potato using a list of 20 possible blemishes such as rhizoctonia, hollow heart, freeze damage, soft rot, etc.

If you want to look at the detailed guidelines for the Washington Potato Evaluation competition check out the 13-page Potato Evaluation CDE Handbook.

There is a state-level potato judging contest for 4-H members in Pennsylvania. There are two divisions – basic and honors. Winners from previous years compete in the honors division. The event was held last week in conjunction with the Pennsylvania Farm Show. The contest consists of three sections:

The first section is a “plate” grading station, with 2 sets of plates. Five potatoes are put on each of four plates, then each plate is evaluated on uniformity of size and shape and lack of defects. The plates are then ranked in order. The second section is identification of common defects of potatoes. The final section includes four components: Grading to US No 1 standards, parts of a potato plant, varieties of potatoes, and potato production.

Figure 9. The 2022 4-H spud judgers from Bradford County, Pennsylvania. Source – The Daily Review, Towanda, PA. January 16, 2022.

There may be potato evaluation competitions in other states of which I am not aware.

Concluding Remarks

The article heading that appeared at the first of this Footnote appeared in the Cumberland News in Cumberland, Maryland on October 4, 1947. The article was about the 1947 Maryland state FFA convention and provided results of various competitive events. The Oldtown FFA finished first in potato judging followed by Emmitsburg and East New Market. So, B and E are the correct answers to questions 1 & 2.

What is the correct answer to this question? “Which CDEs or judging contests should FFA advisors or 4-H leaders actively promote?” This question is often raised by rookie agricultural educators who may be overwhelmed with their job. Teachers and 4-H professionals may feel guilty if they don’t participate in everything. But that leads to burnout.

My advice, and it is just my advice, is to participate in events that are relevant to your community and students. You can’t do everything. If there are no dairy farms in your county, should you spend time training dairy judging teams? While this question is debatable, it is something to think about. Focus on what is important to you and your students. Also, consider if the event is part of the curriculum you teach. And don’t be hesitant to call on alumni and volunteers to help prepare those teams.

A special thanks goes to Michael Heitstuman, an ag teacher from Colfax, WA who educated me about the Potato Evaluation CDE in Washington State.