By Mollie Rushmeyer
When Chloe Schaefer’s third-grade teacher at Melrose Elementary sent home cabbage seedlings as part of the National Bonnie Plants Cabbage Program, she had no idea just how enormous the cabbage or the attention would be.
The cabbage 10-year-old Schaefer grew with the help of her grandpa, Mark Hellermann, also of Melrose, weighed in at 13.8 pounds and won her the National Bonnie Plants Cabbage Program Award and a $1,000 scholarship for her future education.
“I never thought it would be so big when we started,” Schaefer said. “It was in just a tiny little pot when I brought it home.”
Across Minnesota, 10,720 students were given a cabbage seedling to take home over the summer to plant and nurture with the hope to grow the vegetable to contest-winning proportions. From there, about 71 entered their cabbages into the contest. Nationally, 1.5 million third graders in 48 states were given the cabbage starters.
The program began in 1996, as a way to encourage and cultivate the love of vegetable gardening and the fundamentals of agriculture in children, with the desire that they would carry that into adulthood and into the next generation.
Schaefer’s mom, Amy Schaefer, said, “Chloe really took it (growing the cabbage) to heart. She loves gardening.”
And because the Schaefer family was in the process of moving and didn’t have anywhere to plant the cabbage, Chloe’s grandpa, Mark Hellermann, offered a space in his large garden plot.
“It became a very special bonding experience,” Amy said, “between grandpa and granddaughter.”
Schaefer herself said she had a lot of fun with her grandpa — watering, fertilizing, and taking care of the cabbage together.
And a green-thumb must run in the family, as Amy Schaefer said not only do they regularly reap the benefits of Grandpa Hellermann’s gardening skills, but Chloe has always loved gardening and growing things.
Before the contest ever entered the picture, Schaefer had asked for a garden for her birthday at their new house. This year, Schaefer said she plans to do a mix of flowers and vegetables.
When Amy Schaefer, who also works at the Melrose Elementary in the special education department, received news her daughter had won the contest, she made sure receiving the award would be extra special for her. Amy Schaefer was on a committee planning the school-wide talent show, and she saw it as the perfect opportunity to present her daughter with the news that she had won.
The whole family kept it quiet beforehand to give Chloe a big surprise. Schaefer’s sister, Alexa, a fifth grader at Melrose, was the emcee for the talent show and in on the secret, too. When it was announced, and a six-foot cardboard check for the $1,000 was presented to Chloe, Amy Schaefer said her daughter was in complete shock.
“I thought it would’ve been hard to keep that secret, if that were me,” Schaefer said. “I loved that they did that, and it was crazy that it was in front of the whole school.”
Her grandpa/gardening-partner was there to celebrate with her as well.
When it came time to harvest the basketball-sized cabbage, Chloe said she had mixed feelings — sad to take it out, but happy to see her and her grandpa’s hard work paid off.
“It was so big we couldn’t eat it all,” Chloe said with a laugh.
Stan Cope, president of Bonnie Plants, said, “This unique, innovative program exposes children to agriculture and demonstrates, through hands-on experience, where food comes from. The program also affords our youth with some valuable life lessons in nurture, nature, responsibility, self-confidence and accomplishment.”
And that’s just what Chloe said she plans to do—take all she has learned through this experience and continue getting her hands in the dirt and growing things.