Alfa Scholarships Help Nurture Knowledge
By Lindsey Rickard
Walking among rows of chest-high Encore Azaleas at Flowerwood Nursery in Loxley, Phil Shackelford is only 10 miles from where he grew up, but seemingly a thousand miles from where his career began.
|Phil Shackelford, left, developed a love of agriculture working on the farm of his neighbor, Donnie Waters, right.
Shackelford's passion for his job is in full bloom as he winds his way through acres upon acres of potted plants checking on employees -- all while directing other parts of the operation by cell phone.
"I've done everything here there is to do," said Shackelford, who holds the title of operations director of mass marketing for three nurseries and is responsible for the trucking department and logistics. "I've pulled weeds, planted plants, fertilized and trimmed."
But the 13-year horticulture veteran may have never mastered the art of juggling such diverse responsibilities had it not been for the work ethic learned on the nearby farm of Donnie and Norma Waters or the scholarship he received from the Baldwin County Farmers Federation.
A 1995 graduate of Auburn University with a degree in horticulture, Shackelford is among hundreds who have attended college with the help of scholarships from the Alabama Farmers Federation and its county organizations.
Today, 39 county Farmers Federations have scholarship programs. In addition, last year the Alabama Farmers Federation awarded $42,000 in scholarships to 24 agricultural students at Auburn University, and another $20,000 was given by county Federations through endowments with Auburn's College of Agriculture.
In a single academic year, 39 county Farmers Federations throughout the state award about $150,000 in scholarships.
Baldwin County Farmers Federation President and State Board Member David Bitto said the scholarships represent an investment by the state's largest farm organization in the future of agriculture.
"Education is more important now than it ever was," said Bitto. "Agriculture has gotten so high-tech, you have to be educated to know how some things work. Our scholarships help promote the agriculture profession and give students a chance to get that education."
Shackelford, who grew up helping the Waterses on their farm, developed a love for horticulture while working at his aunt's nursery in Birmingham after high school. But it wasn't until he got a job at a local factory that he decided his career path.
"I decided I didn't like working in an industry," Shackelford said. "They were offering layoffs, and I took the layoff. That's when I decided to go back to school."
Shackelford got involved with Flowerwood by doing an internship there during the summer and winter breaks when he was in college. It not only kept him in touch with the people there, but got him a job right after graduating from Auburn.
Flowerwood is one of the largest nurseries in the Southeast with eight operations in Alabama, Florida and Georgia specializing in improved products that include Encore Azaleas, Endless Summer Hydrangea and the Knock-Out Rose, as well as the new Southern Living plant collection.
Shackelford says his job keeps him busy, but he enjoys the challenge.
"I kind of wear a lot of different hats," Shackelford said. "But with farming or nurseries, that's just what you do."
For Steve "T-Buck" Waters, the path to horticulture was a little more clear. Waters, a grandson of Donnie and Norma, grew up around farming and always knew he wanted to go into to agriculture.
"I grew up on the farm and it was a great place to live," Waters said. "I knew I wanted to work in the outdoors and do something with plants. So horticulture seemed to be a good fit."
Waters heard about the Federation's scholarship from his family, and applied every year during his college career at Faulkner State Community College and Auburn University.
Waters graduated from Auburn in 2002 and immediately got the job as landscape designer for the City of Gulf Shores, a job he is still enjoying.
"The thing I like most about my job is just the fact that I can be outside," Waters said. "I love being outdoors; I also like the challenges. It's never the same, everything is constantly changing."
In addition to caring for plants around the city, Waters recently started his own business, Waters Outdoor Solutions, which specializes in the consulting, design and installation of irrigation and landscape.
He said his education was essential for him to get his degree, and not only do his job, but do it right.
"I couldn't do this job near the same without my education," Waters said. "The degree and all the experience I got learning the plants, were essential to doing this job."
"People used to think of greenhouse and nursery as just digging in the dirt and dirty work," he said. "It is dirty work, but there's another level to it. You have to make sure you do things right and make sure that what you do doesn't have an adverse effect on the environment."
Shackelford and Waters both agree that their careers in their trade have been rewarding.
"A lot of people look at agriculture and landscaping and think, there's not a lot of money there," Waters said. "But you really can make a good living."
"When I go out and see some of our plants outside the work environment it makes you feel good to know that you had a part in getting that plant to that location, and there is so much work that goes into it," Shackelford said. "I went to school to learn how to grow plants, and I've found that the deeper I get into it the more I've learned it's more about people and management. If you surround yourself with good people and let them do what they do best, things will work themselves out."
Today, the Baldwin County Farmers Federation can award up to $30,000 in scholarships each year, and has awarded up to 12 scholarships in a single year.
Donnie Waters, who serves as secretary/treasurer of the Federation, says the number of applications has decreased over the years, but he remains optimistic.
"I think we'll start seeing more careers in the horticulture and forestry side," Waters said. "So I hope our applicant numbers will go up."
Shackelford believes the scholarship program is a good way to promote agriculture in Alabama.
"I think that the scholarship program gives people opportunities who want to go get an education," Shackelford said. "It gives them an opportunity to make a positive impact in their county."