When registration opens at Boyle County High School, horticulture classes are among the first to fill. Students are not just interested in classroom lessons about propagating, watering and fertilizing nursery plants — they are eager to get their hands dirty.
The Danville, Ky., high school operates an onsite greenhouse and garden center, providing hands-on horticultural education to student members of FFA chapters.
“Teaching in the greenhouse lets students engage in a very different style of learning,” explains Toni Myers, agriculture education teacher and FFA adviser at Boyle County High School. “We can study fertilizer in the classroom, but that lesson comes alive when we can go into the greenhouse to see how it works.”
The National FFA Organization, a nonprofit student organization promoting student agricultural leadership, does not track the number of FFA chapters operating retail garden centers, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the student-run enterprises are popular. There are FFA chapters across the country operating retail garden centers, including Montezuma, Iowa; Ansonia, Ohio; Baker City, Ore.; and Unicoi County, Tenn.
The Boyle County FFA chapter has been running its garden center for more than three decades. More than 100 varieties of annuals, vegetables and herbs are grown onsite from seed or transplants, and FFA members are responsible for all aspects of the garden center operation, including retail sales.
“When our doors open [from mid-April to mid-May], there are people lined up to get in,” Myers says. “We are filling a local niche and growing a product the community wants.”
Sowing a seed
Jerry Kelley, agriculture education teacher and FFA adviser at Parkside High School in Salisbury, Md., believes operating a garden center on a high school campus fills the dual role of meeting academic standards and providing leadership skills students need to succeed after high school, noting, “Our students don’t get to high school knowing they want to take [agriculture education].”
It doesn’t take long for FFA members to get excited about operating retail garden centers.
The A+ Garden Centre at Parkside High School is thriving. Production increased from 15,000 plants in 2012 to 150,000 plants in 2017, and it’s one of just two high school programs in the nation with an All-America Selections Display Garden.
In Danville, the FFA chapter operates one of the few independent garden centers in the area. The lack of proximity to other retail nurseries would normally make it difficult for students to gain work experience in the industry and assess their interests in pursuing careers in horticulture. In fact, a local garden center used to recruit FFA members to fill seasonal, part-time positions, but it went out of business, making the Boyle County FFA Greenhouse one of the only options for local garden center employment.
All of the proceeds from plant sales fund the FFA chapter operating the greenhouse. The costs for FFA activities, such as competitions and travel, can be quite high; the plant sales help offset expenses for students, making the program more accessible to a wider number of students.
“They see these little seedlings growing into plants that people are excited to buy, and it gets them excited,” Myers says. “We need to provide opportunities for them to pursue that interest.”
Myers points to a former student who went on to earn undergraduate and graduate degrees in horticulture and credits her experience in the FFA-run greenhouse for cultivating her interest in the field.
Kelley echoes the sentiment that introducing FFA members to horticulture can spark their interest in working at garden centers, noting, “Once the kids realize it’s a cool place to be, they want to be part of it.”
Several FFA members have used their experience at A+ Garden Centre to land part-time jobs at local nurseries, including independent garden centers and the garden departments of retailers like Home Depot and Walmart.
Kelley hopes the program could inspire entrepreneurship that will help the industry. “I believe we’ll see several students opening their own garden centers in the future,” Kelley says.
At Ansonia High School in Ansonia, Ohio, students have been operating a garden center since 2003. The Ansonia FFA Greenhouse is open to the public for several weeks in spring, fall and winter, selling up to 200 different varieties of bedding plants in the spring, mums in the fall and poinsettias in the winter. Managing all aspects of operation, from sowing seeds and transplanting to marketing and sales, is part of the curriculum.
Ansonia High School horticulture instructor and FFA co-adviser Zane Fessler estimates that 15 percent of the students who take greenhouse classes and work in the onsite garden center go on to related careers.
Since stepping into his position in 2015, he’s been forging relationships with local garden centers in the hopes of developing internship programs and boosting the number of FFA members working in garden centers after graduation.
“There are a good number of garden centers around here, but we’re the only horticulture [education] program in the area,” Fessler says. “It will help us prepare students for careers in horticulture.”
But Fessler also acknowledges that there are challenges in cultivating a workforce — even for part-time positions. The peak season is the same for the Ansonia FFA Greenhouse and local garden centers, making it difficult for students to juggle jobs in both facilities. Smaller garden centers might lack the budgets to cover a stipend or the manpower to supervise interns. However, the efforts are worth it, he says.
“If the local garden centers would get more involved with what’s happening at the high schools, there could be great potential to develop partnerships that benefit everyone,” he says.