A group of bright farm-business-minded students in Brockway, Pennsylvania kicked off their annual greenhouse sale in May after a year of putting their love for farming and horticulture learning on hold during the pandemic.
The Agricultural Education department of Brockway Junior-Senior Highschool, previously known as the Brockway Chapter of Future Farmers of America (FFA) has made a tradition of their plant sale each year for the local community. In 1988, these chapters of FFA transformed across the country into intra-curricular, agricultural education programs — a move that allows for a broader offering of agricultural science courses including wildlife studies, genetics, horticulture, and more. The shift from FFA to “Ag Ed,” as it is casually referred to, also meant that students learn these skills during the school day, not as an extracurricular.
Currently, the Brockway High School agricultural science program has an impressive 113 students and two faculty advisors who provide guidance and mentorship to the blooming scientists. Kyle Norman, one of the faculty advisors, started teaching agricultural science courses at Brockway about fourteen years ago. “Back then they were actually considering cutting the program, but they decided to give it one more go and they hired me. And then, we were able to take the program and just really grow it from there. We got more kids to interact [and] we got more kids involved,” Norman told Garden & Health.
Brockway High School’s other faculty advisor is Matt Holt, a former student of Mr. Norman’s. Holt joined the Brockway team four years ago and has seen the program bloom over the years as a student, a teacher, and a mentor.
About ten years ago (when Holt was still a student), a local resident donated a greenhouse. The question for the Ag Ed team: what to do with it? “There was a house where our greenhouse stands now, that we actually tore down, and then we built the greenhouse up in its place,” Holt recalls. “We actually built the table where we plant all the plants and we built all the tables inside of the greenhouse. We actually learned a lot when we were doing that.”
That hands-on learning and experience for students growing up in Brockway – a community with about 2,000 residents whose backbone is agriculture and manufacturing is exactly what the Ag Ed program aims to provide. Over the years, a greenhouse sale emerged as a method for that learning.
“Most of the kids really love the greenhouse; they love getting out and they love going over there. You know, just because it gets them outside of that normal educational setting,” the faculty advisors say.
The annual plant sale boasts a full suite of houseplants in addition to colorful blooms of floral offerings and even vegetable seedling packets.
While the funds provide important capital for the continuing education for high school students pursuing a career in agriculture, the process of growing, harvesting, and selling the plants, vegetables, and seedlings provides an experience that the students can carry into their professional careers. Some students move on to four-year college programs, while others may embark on a two-year technical school or transfer these skills directly into a career.
“Our goal for the program or mission of the program is to give our students skills both practical and interpersonal skills that they can use throughout their lives, and to help further their careers,” says Kyle. “We really want to be able to prepare students for as much as we can, whether it’s college or a two-year degree or whether it’s a trade school or it’s straight out in the workforce.”
Brockway may be a small town in Jefferson County, Pennsylvania with a modest population, but despite its size, the mission and message of building a productive and inclusive student body illustrate the perseverance and dedication of America’s new agricultural generation.
“Just because somebody is not speaking at you doesn’t mean you’re not learning,” the advisors commented, “I think the kids, by the time they get to the senior year, they kind of realize that.”
This past month, a young woman who was a senior at Brockway at the time of this interview applied for a grant from the Pennsylvania FFA called the “Learning By Doing” grant. Her efforts were successful and Brockway will be awarded funds for improving the interior of the greenhouse in the summer of 2021.