Students blossom in class

By Chris Steinbach · Wednesday, September 5, 2012
Send a dozen or so students to West Liberty High School’s greenhouse and garden to pull weeds in the first week of classes and some high jinks take root.

“Is this a weed,” one student asked instructor Zach Morris, while another student accidentally pulled up some potatoes and others convinced Grace Jedlicka,  a 17-year-old senior, to suck on a hot pepper.

Morris, 23, who is beginning his second year of teaching agricultural classes at the school, sent the students outside Monday to catch up on work that didn’t always get done in the last hot weeks of summer vacation. Students volunteered to harvest peppers and tomatoes over the summer. The produce was served in school lunches or was used at El Patio restaurant in West Liberty.

“The challenge is getting them in here,” Morris said of the students who volunteered in the summer.

And that’s why there was work to do as the students prepare the greenhouse to raise poinsettias this fall.

Chances are pretty good the students will be up to the challenge as they learn and the year progresses. And the bar has been set high for them.

In June, the school’s FFA team won the reserve championship at the 2012 State FFA Floriculture Contest held at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids. More than 60 FFA members and 21 teams from across the state participated in the contest. 

Floriculture – the cultivation and management of ornamental and flowering plants – is taught as part of the school’s horticulture program, which also encompasses the science and art of growing fruits and vegetables.

Last year was the first time West Liberty’s FFA members participated in the state floriculture event, Morris said. “They set high expectations for themselves, worked incredibly hard … and it was great to see them excited when their hard work paid off.” 

It also paid off for Morris, who last year was named the Outstanding Young Agriculture Teacher in the Iowa Association of Agricultural Educators’ southeast district.

Morris and fellow agriculture teacher Dick Brand last year taught 230 students. That made their program the second-largest in Iowa, according to the teachers.

And like other activities such as band or football, FFA is a year-round activity for the two teachers and many of their students. In addition to caring for the gardens, the students over the summer collected and sold more than 1,000 gallons of used motor oil and 2,400 pounds of used batteries to recyclers.

The money raised will be used to help pay for FFA projects, Brand said, including the chapter’s annual summer pig program. Every year, the students – many of whom live in town and have little, if any, experience with livestock – buy 20 to 30 pigs. They raise and care for the animals at Brand’s farm and then show them at the Muscatine County Fair.

“Hopefully, they make a little money,” Brand said of the students, who are still finishing their record keeping for the summer.

 “It looks like they will make a little bit this year,” Brand said.
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