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In First Year, Easton Pumpkin Challenge Exceeds Expectations

The weigh off for the Flynn's Family Farm Great Pumpkin Challenge 2012 Easton's Schools vs. Schools will be Sunday at 1 p.m.

When local farmer Todd Sandstrum set out to organize a pumpkin-growing challenge between Easton's schools, his goal was to bring agriculture into the classroom.

Five months later, the Flynn's Family Farm Great Pumpkin Challenge Schools vs. Schools succeeded and blew away all expectations.

"The project exploded much bigger than I thought it was going to," he said. "I thought it was going to be a nice project but it really took off much more."

The challenge will come to an end Sunday at the Natural Resources Trust Harvest Fair when pumpkins from Center School, Moreau Hall, Olmsted-Richardson/Easton Middle School, Parkview and Oliver Ames square off in a pumpkin weigh-off.

Many of the pumpkins, which have been growing all summer, weigh hundreds of pounds.

Sandstrum and his girlfriend Gen Pollock came up with the idea after Pollock gave the seeds to Sandstrum as a gift. When the seeds turned out to be defective, Sandstrum sent them back. In return, he ended up with many more than he expected.

"[I thought] What am I going to do with 70 seeds?" he said. "I'm not going to use them all. What am I going to do with them?"

Sandstrum approached Sean Flynn of Flynn's Family Farm and Coast of Maine Organics with the idea of pitting Easton's schools against each other in order to generate enthusiasm for agriculture.

Both jumped at the idea.

"I thought it was going to be a great idea," Flynn said. "I was reluctant because I didn't know how [we] could get everyone together and get everyone involved. My biggest thing was I ws interested in getting the kids involved and agriculture in the classroom - which is huge."

Sandstrum, Pollock and Flynn quickly found that there was already enthusiasm.

Parkview School was already working towards a "Growing Green" initiative, complete with an outdoor garden and classroom.

The Growing Green program was started by Parkview's Green Team, which is co-chaired by Karen Cacciapuoti and Dana Spencer. The pumpkins and the rest of the garden was maintained by the Green Team.

At Center School, two sets of parents were assigned to watch the pumpkins every week throughout the summer.

Most importantly, the parents said the hard work was about the kids.

"The kids are really excited about coming to school and seeing the pumpkins grow every day," Center School volunteer Kristen Pierson said.

All of the schools were dealt challenges. Center school battled borer moths and Parkview and Olmsted-Richardson battled mildew. No school, however, faced bigger challenges than Moreau Hall.

Volunteers, teachers and students quickly learned that woodchucks were unable (or unwilling) to understand the "No Woodchucks Allowed" sign next to their pumpkin patch.

"They definitely have invaded our patch," Moreau Hall volunteer Stephanie Blass said. "They still are invading our patch. We did have to set up traps. We did actually catch a woodchuck. He was released safely. It's a battle because of location. We're right against the woods."

Still, the battle with predators was a learning experience for students.

"I think they have a complete respect for nature, wildlife and working together," Moreau Hall teacher Janice Narsasian said.

The winning school Sunday will receive a $900 grant for "agriculture in the classroom," Sandstrum said. He said he hopes to see the project expand to different towns and organizations in coming years and he hopes the program can become a non-profit organization.

Like the pumpkins, he expects the program to grow fast.

"The next couple of years it's going to grow pretty rapidly," he said.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this article refers to Parkview's Growing Green Program as a district-wide initiative. In fact, it is limited to Parkview. Patch regrets the error.

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