This assembly examines these first signs of spring and also discusses why new potatoes in the UK are now grown under swathes of plastic. It asks children to consider where their food comes from – and the price the countryside pays for it
Spring is on its way. Farmers have planted their potatoes and the race is on to see who will harvest the crop first – Jersey, traditionally the first with their Jersey Royals, or Cornwall with their Cornish Earlies.
Have you noticed a change in the weather lately? If you think back to the beginning of the year, we were all struggling through rather a lot of snow and ice. What has it been like lately? [Take suggestions]
Yes, it’s been milder; the snow has cleared and there are signs that spring is on its way: We’ve had winter, we’re looking forward to spring and then summer, and then in September it’ll be autumn!
But today we’re talking about spring. Here are some traditional signs from nature that spring is on its way.
Hands up if you have seen snowdrops in your garden or local park – these brave little, white flowers poking up? [Show picture – hands up] Who has seen cheerful, yellow daffodils like these ones? [Show picture – hands up] Has anyone seen frogspawn? [Show picture – hands up] This pond will soon be full of baby frogs.
Perhaps you’ve seen tiny green buds on wintery-looking trees? Or maybe you’ve noticed more birds in your garden and in the park building their nests. Perhaps the lighter evenings have made you feel like spring was coming?
Even more signs that spring is on its way can be seen out in the countryside if you live there or have visited it – farmers have ploughed their fields into ridges and planted the seeds that will grow into new potatoes.
The story of the potato
The humble potato is a very useful vegetable: you can boil it, roast it, mash it, fry it, pipe it over mincemeat to make cottage pie, or turn it into chips or crisps. It’s from a food group called carbohydrates that give us energy – bread, pasta and cereals work in the same way.
You might think the potato has been around for forever – but you’d be wrong. It only arrived in Europe from South America 400 years ago and it was just 200 years ago that it started to become popular as a food and widely grown. Imagine life without the humble potato! No more chips or crips! No more baked potatoes with cheese and baked beans!
Potatoes can be very good for you: if you eat a baked potato and its skin that will give you almost half the vitamin C you need each day to stay healthy. It also gives you potassium, vitamin B6 and fibre. Potatoes are also very cheap to buy and easy to cook. Unfortunately the poor potato sometimes gets a bad name because we know that chips and crisps are not healthy food – but it’s not the potatoes fault, it’s all the fat and salt that we add to them.
So what about the ‘new’ potato? Those small, slightly sweet potatoes that we get in the spring? Where do they come from?
If you’re lucky enough to live in the countryside or to visit the countryside you might see fields ploughed into ridges with the potatoes growing under the ground and their green leaves beginning to poke through the soil… or you might see something like this… [Show picture of potatoes grown under plastic]
These new potatoes are grown under large plastic sheets. The plastic protects them from any sudden frost that could kill off the young plants. Sometimes you can’t even see the damage being done because the plants look healthy, but the fully grown potatoes later rot when they are being stored. So frost is very bad news for potato plants and this is why many farmers use the plastic sheets.
The sun shines on the plastic and this heats up the air around the potato plants and the soil underneath. The young plants think it’s warmer than it really is so they put all their energy into growing. This means the plants grow more quickly – the plastic sheets act like mini greenhouses.
It also means delicious, sweet new potatoes will be in our shops and supermarkets up to a month earlier than if they’d been left to grow without the plastic. People enjoy eating the small, tasty potatoes and the farmers make more money because they can charge more for yummy baby potatoes.
But here’s the but… it means that hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions – of tonnes of plastic sheeting is used by farmers every year just so we can have our new potatoes a bit earlier than nature intended.
So what is the poor farmer to do? People want delicous, healthy new potatoes as early as possible, but to provide them farmers must plant them before the last frosts have completely gone. To protect the plants they need to used plastic sheeting which covers thousands of fields all across Britain and other parts of Europe. Perhaps you can think of an answer?
Spring is a wonderful time of the year when the earth seems to come to life again after having been dormant throughout the winter. It seems like a hopeful time of year because of this. Farmers across Britain and the northern half of the world are planting their crops and hoping for a good harvest.
Perhaps the answer to plastic sheets in the countryside is simple: we shouldn’t be so greedy and just wait an extra month or so for those lovely, sweet, little new potatoes. But they really are tasty, I could just eat one now…
Thank you for the Springtime and the promise of renewal in the world. Thank you, too, for our farmers who work so hard all year round to bring us healthy food to eat. Amen.
What are the signs of spring that you most look out for? Warmer days? Lighter evenings? Or perhaps pussy willow – furry catkins – on the willow trees? What do you think of when you think of spring?
The BBC TV programme Springwatch team begins its planning in March and broadcast for three weeks from May
This e-bulletin issue was first published in February 2010
About the author: Jane A. C. West