- Associated Press - Monday, June 6, 2016

AVON, S.D. (AP) - Evan Blaha’s successful tomato research has grown and grown.

The Avon High School student’s project started at the local science fair and eventually advanced to the international stage, where it earned an honorable mention award while competing with more than 560 students.

It was a great amount of success for the 14-year-old, and it came just when he and his family needed it.

In the span of six months, Evan’s cousin drowned in the Missouri River, his father was bit by a Brown Recluse spider and had a heart attack four days after, and his grandfather died in January.

“He was certainly learning some life lessons,” said Evan’s mother, Kathy Blaha.

Throughout the heartache was Evan’s science project, which continued to get high marks in each competition he attended.

Evan placed first in the Life Sciences category at the local competition, held in February, and advanced to regional and international competitions. He placed third in the Life and Behavioral Sciences Senior Division at the South Central South Dakota Science and Engineering Fair on March 15 at Dakota Wesleyan University.

Following the regional competition, he advanced on to the International Sustainable World (Energy, Engineering and Environment) Project Olympiad, I-SWEEEP, held April 27 through May 1 in Houston, Texas. He was the only competitor from South Dakota to compete at this science fair and he received an honorable mention, in which there were 62 countries represented, according to Jody Strand, assistant science fair director at DWU.

The competition breaks down the winners based on the areas of energy, engineering and environment and then distributes gold, silver, bronze and honorable mention awards in the three different categories. He competed in the environment category.

Evan’s mother said she noticed there was a lot of growing up for Evan this year, but he continued working on his project with managing the struggles in his family life.

“They had a lot going on in that family in the fall,” said Paul Kuhlman, science teacher at Avon School. “This was a great way to cap off the year.”


In the project, Evan analyzed the relationship between tomatoes and mulch.

He was amazed by his progress in the competitions.

“I didn’t think it was going to go anywhere,” Evan said.

But, in his words, “all of a sudden” he was going to larger competitions.

All freshmen are required to participate in the Avon Science Fair, Evan said. He wanted to get a head start on his project, so he began working on it over the summer. The five-month-long process gave Evan the chance to cultivate, measure and analyze the effectiveness of five different types of mulches plus a control, which did not utilize mulch.

In his project “Analyzing the Effectiveness of Mulch on Tomatoes,” he used black and redwood mulch, cocoa bean mulch, rubber mulch and bean stubble. Out of the five mulches he used, only one of them was inorganic: the rubber mulch.

The results from his project showed that cocoa bean mulch, a product Evan discovered when he was beginning his science project, produced twice as much growth as the control. The plant with cocoa bean mulch yielded 180 pounds of tomatoes whereas the control produced 100 pounds.


Evan’s decision to base his project on agriculture was natural for him. He lives on a farm where his family harvests alfalfa and also raises horses and cows. He helps his uncles on their farm with planting and harvesting crops.

Kathy Blaha said Evan originally wanted to complete an engineering project, but chose to stay in the field of agriculture.

“The more experience he has in the science field, the better off he will be to prepare himself for his career and his education,” she said.

Evan was one of the 195 students that competed at the South Central South Dakota Science and Engineering Fair, Strand said. This competition is the regional fair students compete in after they progress through their local competition.

Strand said the competitions, both regional and international, offer students many opportunities including financial assistance, cultural exposure and the chance to get out of South Dakota.

“To win some of this stuff is such an opportunity for them personally, professionally and financially,” Strand said. “It opens up such huge doors.”


Evan was financially supported to attend I-SWEEEP through community donations that went to his local science fair and assistance from the regional competition.

Kuhlman said every year he asks for donations from the Avon community and “the checks just start rolling in” to support the science fair.

“It’s just amazing how much the community gives to the school,” he said. There are individuals that donate every year and new people that donate because they have a child competing in the competitions, Kuhlman said.

For Kathy Blaha, this was a demonstration of community and state support.

“In the rural area that we live in, if students aren’t supported like this there’s a chance that they won’t be able to have that opportunity because parents may not be able to afford it,” Kathy said.

She felt that she has seen Evan grow throughout this experience.

He also attended the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, ISEF, as an student observer at the beginning of May.

While Evan attended ISEF, he looked at other students projects and saw a variety of complexity.

“It also shows that you don’t have to have a really complicated project,” he said.

Evan wasn’t alone when he attended ISEF. Five students from the Mitchell area attended the competition as finalists. The students were Madison and Hannah Hetland, Thea Patrick, Haley Rust and Alexander Rodriguez.

Another student, Alexandra Goldammer from Mitchell was selected from the South Central South Dakota Science and Engineering Fair to attend the GENIUS Olympiad, another large-scale science fair, from June 12-17, in Oswego, New York.

Next year, Evan plans to continue his project with mulch and tomatoes, but he will focus on soil health instead of mulch quality.

For now, he’s enjoying the success he had in the competitions and the salsa and other tomato-based products his grandmother made from the 755 pounds of tomatoes he produced.


Information from: The Daily Republic, https://www.mitchellrepublic.com

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