RED BUD, Ill. — The most difficult part, from a student’s point of view, of working in the Red Bud High School greenhouse, is — well, let Abbigale Esker tell it.
“I don’t mind being here all the time because this is my passion and this is what I want to do with my life. There’s not really a hard part about it,” said Esker, who will be a junior at Red Bud High School in the fall.
Esker’s classmate, Olivia Schlueter, has a similar view.
“I don’t mind being here because all my friends are here. We all just hang out and we get to talk to all of our customers who come in,” Schlueter said.
The school year may be over and students and teachers well into summer vacation mode, but for the Red Bud FFA students who work in the school’s greenhouse, the planting and growing continues.
“They take time over spring break, Christmas break, summer break, they sign up for different days. It’s a huge commitment for these kids, but they get a lot out of it,” said Brett Wilson, Red Bud High School ag teacher and FFA adviser.
For students like Esker, the greenhouse work is experience for a career she plans in horticulture.
When she’s not working in the Red Bud greenhouse, Esker works part time for Growing Green, a St. Louis-based plantscaping and interior landscape company, where her mother is director of sales/design and marketing.
“I grew up in the horticulture business,” Esker said.
Schlueter shows dairy cattle when she’s not working in the greenhouse or promoting greenhouse sales as the FFA chapter reporter.
“I’m a people person and I like to talk so I like talking to our customers and learning about everything,” Schlueter said.
Wilson said the greenhouse project is a way for students to learn, to connect with the local community and to bring non-farm students into the ag program and offer them ideas for career paths.
“When I got here, most of the students were your typical, rural farm kids. I brought the concept of you don’t have to know anything about agriculture or a farm to be in FFA or to be in ag classes. We started getting more and more of those non-farm kids. They started to be our spokespersons and they drew more students into the program, where I now have about even numbers of both farm kids and non-farm kids,” Wilson said.
Work for the school’s plant sales starts when students return from Christmas break. Since the outdoor gardening and growing season starts earlier in southern Illinois, Wilson and his students plan for plants to be ready by Mother’s Day.
“We start all of our stuff in early January with the plugs and February is when we start doing our vegetable crops, so they are a decent size by Mother’s Day. Some years, we have plants ready around Easter, if Easter falls later,” Wilson said.
The plants that the students plant, tend and sell range from bedding plants to succulents to vegetable plants and hanging baskets.
“I do the designing part of it. We have combination pots that have a variety of plants that complement each other,” Esker said.
The students have their favorites from the wide variety of plants.
“I like all of these little succulents and I like the coleus. I am a foliage person, so I like the foliage plants,” Esker said.
“I love flowers so I like all of the flowering plants, like the neon orange geraniums,” Schlueter said.
Esker and Schlueter said that working around student schedules, that also include other activities and sports can be a challenge.
“With sports and jobs and everything, it can be hard to get everybody here at once, but we all pitch in and we make it work,” Esker said.
A committee of students runs the greenhouse operations, including planning and financial accounts, with Wilson’s guidance.
“The committee takes care of what plants are getting planted, who is running the plant sales, who is watering on different days,” Wilson said.
The ag business class, for their fall final project, builds a business plan for the upcoming plant sales season in the spring.
That plan details everything from how many and what kind of various plants will be sold to who is working in the greenhouse and when, along with sales quotas.
The greenhouse project, for students like Esker, is one of their Supervised Ag Experience projects.
“There are a few students who have their SAE on their time in the greenhouse, coming in on weekends during the summer to work, watering, planting, things like that,” Wilson said.
The current greenhouse structure is close to 30 years old and the greenhouse program has outgrown it, Esker said.
So, the students were tasked with the project of making their case for a new greenhouse, including developing a presentation to make to the school’s administration and school board.
“We have had conversations with the superintendent and the principal and our alumni. Nobody is against it. They wanted the kids to put a presentation together to bring to the school board to get some action taken on it,” Wilson said.
Students presented their plan at the June 16 school board meeting.
Proceeds from the school’s plant sales, which happen on Tuesdays and Thursdays after school and on Saturday mornings, are put back into the greenhouse to buy supplies. After those costs are covered, remaining funds are put toward the new, larger greenhouse.
Wilson said the goal, if plans are approved for a new greenhouse, would be to start plants in the current greenhouse and host the spring 2023 plant sales from the new greenhouse.
For Wilson, the year-round work with the greenhouse project and students pays off in student achievement.
“Watching their faces when they realize that, ‘Hey, I planted that and now it’s this plant that someone is going to enjoy,’ to see the enjoyment and the learning that they get out of this is just all I need out of it,” he said.