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June 15, 2001   Email to Friend 

Jeff Helms
June 15, 2001

Section High School FFA President Kiley Harper selects a hanging basket for a customer at the school's greenhouse.
When Section High School senior Adam Berry began talking to his FFA advisor about building a new greenhouse, he didn't know the project would unite his community. He just knew his tomato plants were burning up in the old school greenhouse, and he thought a new facility would provide a way for his fellow students to make money while they learned about horticulture.

"As many people as there are who want good tomato plants and flowers, I thought we could make money on this and still provide a service to the community," Adam recalled. With that in mind, Adam shared his idea with other FFA members and with his advisor, Monte Gant. The chapter had been saving money from citrus sales since 1996, but it would take government officials, private companies, community volunteers and students, all working together, to make the greenhouse a reality.

Before they asked for help, the students wanted to prove their commitment to the project, so they began doing everything they could think of to raise money.

"We had barbecue dinners. We sold candy, and we sold beef jerky," Gant recalled. But, the students needed a major source of funding if they were going to build a modern, permanent greenhouse.

The solution, Gant decided, was to get the county school board to "meet the students half way." The FFA members also sought assistance from private companies and organizations, and the Jackson County Farmers Federation was among the first to answer the students' call for help, giving $5,000 to the project. Major sponsors also included Mead Paper Co., the Sand Mountain-Lake Guntersville Watershed and long-time Section ginner and farm supplier Harry Campbell--who allowed the students to build the greenhouse on his property adjacent to the school campus.

Raising the money to build their "dream" house, however, was just the beginning for Gant's agriscience technology classes. During the winter, the students built plant tables using PVC plastic pipe and fiberglass beams, and they helped Robbie Hass and J.W. Miller Construction Co. install the plumbing for the building. Meanwhile, other students conducted market research in the community to determine what species of plants would be the best sellers.

Once the students had an idea of what plants they wanted to grow, Gant solicited the advice of Cherokee County greenhouse grower Randy Brewer, who helped the students select varieties that would perform well for their Sand Mountain customers. By February, it was time to begin planting seeds, and Gant said more than 130 students got involved in the action.

"Most of this is hands-on. That's why the kids love it," he said. "They love to get their hands dirty, and that's the best way for them to learn."

One of the students who had her fingers in the potting soil from day one was Kiley Harper, president of the Section FFA chapter as well as the north Alabama district. "As an FFA officer, I thought it would be a great way for the chapter to get involved in the community," Kiley said. "It's a student-run greenhouse. Mr. Gant keeps up with the money, but students do all the work--from planting and watering to loading plants in customers' cars. We have 2-3 students working in the greenhouse during each class period."

The 17-year-old said the project has taught the FFA members how to plant seeds and how much fertilizer and water is needed for each species. But the greatest benefits, she said, are the lessons they've learned about leadership, marketing and community involvement.

"The mission of the FFA is to promote leadership, and what better way is there to do that than through the learning-by-doing process," Kiley said. "This also is a great way for members to build a relationship with the community."

That relationship, she added, began with the students' fund-raising efforts. Because the people of Section helped pay for the greenhouse by buying candy, barbecue and citrus, Kiley believes they feel involved in the process and take pride in seeing the high-quality plants the students raised.

"I believe our business will only grow from here. People like the fact that the plants are grown by students. A lot of love and care goes into producing them, and our customers know each one is going to grow into a beautiful plant," she said.

Gant said his students' hard work already is paying off. They've had customers from as far away as Huntsville, and visitors to the greenhouse during a recent open house were impressed by the professional quality of both the building and the plants.

Located adjacent to the football field at Section High School, the 4,150-square-foot greenhouse is a model of horticultural engineering. It is equipped with a computerized control panel that allows the students to regulate heating, cooling and moisture. Sensors in the gable-style roof automatically adjust shade cloths based on the amount of sunlight that's available. The watering system includes micro-sprinklers for the tray plants and drip spikes for the hanging baskets. Fertilizer is delivered directly to the plants via an injection system.

But, perhaps the most impressive features of the $100,000 facility are its 50 different varieties of plants. From the moment visitors enter the greenhouse, they are surrounded by a rainbow of color. Fiery marigolds and blood-red salvia stand out against a backdrop of white, purple and pink impatiens. Farther down the tables, petunias, begonias, lantana and geraniums provide a colorful contrast to the healthy green leaves of tomatoes, peppers, squash and watermelons.

It's a sight that makes Gant beam with pride.

"We can't always compete with department store prices, but we definitely can beat their quality," Gant said as he watched his students. "We're working for repeat customers. We believe that once people see how well our plants grow, they'll come back."

Kiley also is optimistic.

"We hope to sell more plants so maybe we can build two more greenhouses," she said. "Eventually, we would like to be able to have three greenhouses--one for hanging baskets, one for bedding plants and one for vegetables."

In addition, Kiley plans to encourage individual FFA members to use the greenhouses to start entrepreneurial projects. She also plans to organize a campus beautification project that will include planting flowers from the greenhouse at the entrance to the school and in front of the gymnasium.

For now, however, Gant said his students still have plenty of plants to sell. Prices range from $10 to $25 for a tray of bedding plants or vegetables and from $6 to $10 for hanging plants and ferns. Although the school year ends early this month, Gant said the students will continue selling plants until they sell out. He also said the students plan to sell pansies and poinsettias beginning in November.

Meanwhile, Adam said his only regret is that he is graduating this year.

"This is my last year at Section. But I wish I was in the freshman class and could experience three more years of what I've experienced this year," he said.

For more information, contact Gant at (256) 228-6316.

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