Tennessee FFA Students are Growing Strong
When Lucas Anders was hired as an agriculture teacher and FFA adviser at Unicoi County High School in Erwin in 2013, his new employers made an important request: “We’d like you to look into growing vegetables to supplement the lunch program at all the schools in the county, from elementary on up.”
High school students had been tending flowers in two on-site greenhouses since the agriculture program began there in 1996, and they already had access to hydroponic equipment. But there wasn’t enough space to grow fresh produce for even one cafeteria, let alone seven. So Anders did some research, found six empty, connected greenhouses belonging to Farm Credit Mid-America in a residential neighborhood on the other side of town and inquired about a price. To his delight, Farm Credit donated the 22,000-square-foot building. “And from there, we started ramping up to implement the vegetable production,” says Anders, who also teaches agriscience and landscape management. “We don’t really have the means or the ability to grow them out in the open air or can tomatoes to have for school during October, November and December. The natural growing season doesn’t fit the school calendar. Now we can grow for the school system.”
In late 2014, students began cleaning the property, building beds, setting up the irrigation system and, finally, sowing the first crops of lettuce and broccoli. Thanks in part to funding from the Unicoi County Farm Bureau, they constructed a wall between the second house and the other four to control the climate without having to heat the whole space. At all eight greenhouses, including the two original ones that supply begonias, geraniums and other flowers to markets in several states, they plant tens of thousands of plugs (small starter plants), regularly water and trim the cuttings, and, in spring, keep mature plants on schedule to sell for Mother’s Day. They also electronically manage inventory, shipping and handling.
“They get a hands-on experience that shows them each season of the industry. It allows them to take the classroom knowledge they’ve built and apply it,” Anders says. It also holds the teenagers’ interest in a way books can’t always do. “If you’ve built the bed, put the soil in it and grown the first crop in it, there’s a sense of ownership and pride that this created that they can then take to the next year. It keeps them excited because they feel like it’s theirs.”
Caleb Miller, 19, built greenhouse beds, cultivated flowering plants and helped maintain the football field before graduating from Unicoi last year. He is currently attending Northeast State Community College with plans to transfer to the University of Tennessee agriculture program, most likely majoring in turf science. The knowledge he gained in his high school agriculture program, he says, “really helped me figure out what I wanted to do.”
From Greenhouse to Table
During the 2015-16 school year, Unicoi students grew, among other things, cabbage, cauliflower, peppers (banana, jalapeno and bell) and more than 15,000 tomato plants, including 10 heirloom varieties. They’ve already supplied the cafeteria with a sampling of lettuce and radishes but are still working out the kinks to be able to grow enough vegetables to regularly supplement the lunch program at the Title I high school, where up to 70 percent of students receive reduced-rate lunches. In 2015 alone, the county lost nearly 500 jobs when the railroad unexpectedly rerouted its trains and a major manufacturer moved to Mexico, greatly impacting the economically challenged Erwin, a town of fewer than 6,000 people.
“This may be the only meal some of these kids get,” Anders points out. “If we can take lunch and make it better quality, then we can improve their lives. We all know that kids that are hungry can’t learn the way they need to.”
In addition to growing vegetables for the Unicoi County schools, future goals include supplying produce to other Tennessee school systems and offering a dual credit program in conjunction with UT. For now, every vocational agriculture class at Unicoi County High School is full, and there’s a waiting list for the agriscience program.
“I think teenagers are not given enough credit for being driven, but the quantity of kids that are signing up is a direct reflection of the growth of the program and the success,” Anders says, noting that his students love competition. “The No. 1 thing is showing them the potential. Work doesn’t scare them, as long as they see results. With the greenhouse, I go in there in January and I say, ‘OK, guys. We’re gonna plant 26,000 plugs this semester.’ At first they look at you like you’re nuts. But once they see them grow, and what they can turn into, it excites them. And they tell their friends.”