ATWATER -- If you grow it, they will come.
New garden plots, a grape vineyard, viticulture lab and landscaping at Atwater High School will help that school's agriculture program experience even more growth, the ag department chairman believes.
Dave Gossman said increasing support from the community and growing student enthusiasm for horticulture classes are manifested in the garden plots being developed now near the ag complex. About $10,000 in improvements are being made, thanks to community contributions, annual plant sales and support from students, the school and district personnel.
"Our program has tripled in size in the last four years," Gossman said. "More and more kids want to get involved. Nearly half of our student body are taking at least one ag course."
Horticulture is a multi-billion dollar industry and more students see this as a viable career path, Gossman said.
"Things are building and expanding around here," Gossman said. "This is the seventh year of us doing plant sales. We started small but have expanded into the pole barn area and are maxed out."
Gossman, who has been with the ag program for 10 years, said he had a vision years ago to get students involved. The school staff is passionate about their programs and the community is tremendously supportive.
"The credit goes to everybody," Gossman said. "It's the perfect storm."
The new garden plots and grape vineyard where six different wine and edible grape varieties will be grown represent about a $10,000 investment. Four garden plots will be used by Merced County Office of Education special education students to plant fall and spring vegetables.
The goal is to have all the phased improvements done by the end of October.
Many agriculture students live in town rather than on a farm or ranch. Future Farmers of America programs generally are associated with animals but it's much more than that, Atwater High Principal Alan Peterson said.
"We've been fortunate that a lot of material and work have been donated," Peterson said. "This offers more opportunities for ag students to continue to have relevant hands-on education. We offer alternatives that all students can participate."
Mayra Hernandez, 16, is a junior and an advanced horticulture student. A part of the FFA horticultural judging team, Hernandez is thinking about a landscaping career and wants to go to college, possibly at a University of California campus or Modesto Junior College.
Last year she grew 72 plants and sold them all. She's thinking about doing it again.
Bryce Firestine, 17, a senior, is taking a horticulture class this year and has been in ag classes for four years. A former teacher's assistant for Gossman, Firestine said Atwater High teachers are amazing and he has been inspired to pursue an ag career. He hopes to attend either UCLA or the University of California at San Diego.
Gossman said ag teachers encourage involvement beyond the classroom. New growing areas will allow freshmen and sophomores to grow shrubs, trees and other plants, common to this area, which can be sold when they are juniors and seniors.
It's similar to the experience of other ag students who raise pigs for the county fair, using profits from their long-term efforts for college, Gossman said.
The Atwater FFA will hold its seventh annual plant sale Oct. 7-8 at the school. About $10,000 worth of plants are sold each year, with the profits reinvested in equipment and supplies.
Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or email@example.com.