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Kids To Cash In On Spud Technology

Idaho Falls Post-Register

Rachel Winston just got her driver’s license and a year-and-a-half stands between her and a high school diploma. But she means business.

She can rattle off growth rates of potato sprouts, explain how to clone a plant, and discuss changes in the spud market without missing a beat. While friends at Shelley High School are talking about dating or what’s for lunch, the 16-year-old is calculating how many plants she can produce in an hour, and how much money that translates into.

“Yeah, it’s out of the ordinary,” she said.

What’s unusual is that she and a handful of other students are planning to start their own business.

With the guidance of Mike Winston (her father and a Shelley High science teacher), a local farmer, the University of Idaho and a nearby potato processor, they expect to open eastern Idaho’s first potato cloning company next spring. If all goes as planned, they expect to have 10 employees and revenues of more than $600,000 by the year 2000.

“It could get pretty huge,” Rachel said.

This entrepreneurial adventure is the latest offshoot from a course designed to connect students with the world outside their classrooms.

“We started a long time ago trying to get kids into actually solving community problems,” said Mike Winston, the creator of the class, called “Solutions.”

In this case, the project could help local farmers get better potato plants more quickly. It could open up more jobs for students leaving high school. And it may help the nearby Pillsbury potato processing plant recycle heat from water used to make tons of processed potatoes, Winston said.

Potato cloning may sound futuristic. But it’s actually simple enough to do in a closet at the high school - the “factory’s” current home.

The students put tiny potato sprouts into baby food jars partly filled with agar, a clear gel packed with nutrients. Under special lights, the sprouts grow to about an inch tall. Then the students chop them into four or five pieces, and replant them in more jars. At the going rate, they can turn 40 plants into 300,000 plants in 12 weeks, Rachel said.

For farmers, the cloning produces genetically “clean” potatoes very quickly, she said. Potatoes are generally grown from seed potatoes - smaller, carefully cultivated strains of the tuber. But with scientists churning out new varieties all the time, farmers face waits of several years for new seed strains.

The project began three years ago when a local farmer, Reed Searle, asked Winston if the class could help him grow clones of a new potato variety developed by the University of Idaho. Searle bought the class an $8,000 machine that sterilizes air in part of the lab.

The first batch of 40,000 baby plants never materialized. Contamination and inexperience took their toll, Winston said. But he is confident they have solved the problems.

Decked out in hard hats and baby-blue lab coats, five students gained more of a hands-on education Friday in a tour of the Pillsbury plant. They learned that steam, which billows out of this factory in the heart of Shelley, could heat the greenhouses they plan to build nearby.

“What today for us is waste, tomorrow for you is something value added,” Pillsbury manager Jeff Robert told the students.

Turning this from a classroom project into a viable business depends on the help of businesses, university researchers and the federal government, said Mike Winston.

In addition to Searle’s contribution, the University of Idaho provided the students with the baby plants, and showed them the basics of plant cloning.

Pillsbury is donating four acres of land near their plant for the planned greenhouses, and is helping the students write their business plan.

Mark Patrick, a manager with Lockheed Martin Idaho Technologies, the lead contractor at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, met with the students to help them figure out how to run their assembly line.

“The neat thing about this whole thing is this partnership,” Winston said.

Now the students plan to build a greenhouse by March, complete with pipes that carry warm waste water from Pillsbury to the building. This June they hope to have 80,000 plants, half to pay back Searle for his donation, half to sell. By 1999, Rachel projects the company could be growing and selling 1.5 million plants.

Getting from a closet to the greenhouses is still going to take work. Winston expects to raise much of the start-up money from grants. Students still need to figure out exactly how to get the hot water to the plants, and the buildings are just lines on paper right now. And they need to decide whether the business will be run as a nonprofit or for-profit company.

Farmers will also need to see results before buying their plants.

“It’s going to take a little time because they’re going to have to build up their credibility,” Searle said.

Still, Rachel is confident the business will get started. Though most 16-year-olds groan at the question of “what are you going to do when you get out of school,” she already has plans. She wants to work on the business after graduating in 1999, then go to college to study agriculture. Then, she plans to come back home to work at the business.

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