ATWATER — Quite a bit of growth is going on at Atwater High School but much of it is below the surface right now.
Plants are the growth object and about half of the Atwater High student body is involved in the school Agriculture Department's semi-annual plant sale coming next month, followed by the entry of plants in the Merced County Fair's horticulture exhibits in June.
Dave Gossman, the school's Agriculture Department chairman, instructor and FFA adviser, said thousands of plant plugs will be transplanted by students into plant liners that will be sold May 11-12, and 2,000 others will exhibited at the Merced County Fair the following month.
Gossman said about half of the campus is enrolled in at least one agriculture class. That's 850 students and helps the school be one of the top five largest programs in the state.
"Our agriculture enrollment continues to grow because students are having fun, the program offers a variety of opportunity, stimulates their interests and keeps them involved outside the classroom," Gossman said.
Natalie Kirschner, who teaches ag leadership, veterinary science and ag life science, said students sell large numbers of annuals and perennials to the area's amateur gardeners.
Kirschner said many ag students are nontraditional and have never experienced farm life firsthand. Some never have planted a plant before and they get to watch the growing process for the first time.
"The No. 1 goal is to get students excited about horticulture," Gossman said. "As a teacher, my goal is to encourage a good work ethic where students can see the results of their hard work and take personal pride. Horticulture is a great vehicle for establishing a solid work ethic because flowers and plants enhance the campus and atmosphere. Students are stakeholders in their educational investment."
Plants, trees for sale
There are two phases to the spring growing season. The first phase involves the horticulture class transplanting thousands of flowing annual and perennial plugs that will be grown for six to eight weeks before the May sales.
"Over 100 fruit trees will be available to the community as well as a new selection of ferns," Gossman said. "Unsold plants are utilized for landscape projects on campus and donated to other district campuses or community schools (and) programs. We always try to grow plants that do well in our area's climate and we are always trying to find new varieties of plants that are not seen at the local garden stores. This makes our product unique and original."
Edith Duran, a senior, took an ag class because of peer pressure but hasn't regretted the choice.
"All my friends were taking an ag class," Duran said. "It has been one of the best decisions I have ever made. The agriculture education classes have helped me with my interest in pursuing a career in biological science; however, my success in agronomy (2012 state champion team) and horticulture has expanded my interests to perhaps going into crop science. Either way, ag and the FFA have made me a better person and prepared me towards my future."
She hopes to attend California State University, Fresno, and is trying to decide whether to pursue an ag major and career or something else.
Gossman said that over the past couple of years students have sold more than $5,000 in plants each year, with the revenue re-invested into the horticulture department for supplies, tools, equipment and facility expansion.
"It's a tremendous win-win for the students, school and community because the students are generating a great product and the support goes right back into reinvesting towards our youth," Gossman said.
Wilbur Dominguez, a 10th-grade ag student, said he enjoys a chance to work outside.
"Recently I have been helping Mr. Gossman weigh pigs for the fair and assist in various garden and plant projects," Wilbur said. "It's been a lot of fun."
Gossman said the overall goal of ag education and the FFA is to have a positive difference in the lives of young people and provide them with the resources and experiences toward personal growth, academic success and career preparation.
Mayra Hernandez, a senior, enrolled in ag at the urging of her sister. She originally planned to go into criminal justice. That has changed.
"I took a horticulture class because I thought it looked like fun," Hernandez said. "The experience grabbed my interest and I was hooked. The FFA changed my life! I have been accepted and look forward to attending Fresno State University to pursue as career as an agriculture teacher and hope top make a positive difference in future students just like the agriculture program has done for me."
Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or firstname.lastname@example.org.