SHS, Extension partnership blooms

SHS, Extension partnership blooms

Image Credit: Submitted

When Smithville High School’s agriculture education program built a new greenhouse on the school’s campus last year, more than plants took root.

A partnership also formed through the expertise shared with the program by the Ohio State University Extension in Wayne County.

Both the greenhouse and its products — in the form of 150 bright-red poinsettias — and the partnership were on display during a recent visit to the greenhouse by local OSU Extension personnel and Jackie Wilkins, associate dean and director of OSU Extension. Wilkins travels the state for “lean-in” tours to see how extension is making a difference in the community. She was accompanied by Ann Christy, assistant dean for teaching and learning in the College of Engineering at OSU.

The 32-by-48-foot greenhouse gives the agriculture students a lab where they can escape their small space in the school and apply what they learn in the classroom, Smithville agriculture teacher Stephen Heppe said.

The idea for the greenhouse came from Frank Becker, a member of the Smithville FFA Alumni and at the time OSU Extension’s integrated pest management specialist. He served as a consultant for the project and researched what other schools had built.

“It needed to be a practical place where students could get out of the classroom and have the opportunity to do hands-on learning,” said Becker, who is now Wayne County’s agriculture and natural resources educator for OSU Extension and a guest lecturer for the high school agriculture unit on plants.

Students also grew poinsettias last year as their first project in the greenhouse, featuring automated watering and heating and cooling systems. Heppe said the poinsettias are easier to grow than the bedding plants they raise in the spring.

When the poinsettias arrived, they were about 5 inches tall and in individual pots, Heppe explained. “So essentially, the students are just finishing them off.”

The flowers require about 12 hours of total darkness in order to turn a bright-red color, he said, so a curtain is pulled around them each afternoon. Students are responsible for watering and fertilizing them and watching for pests.

An unexpected learning experience arose last year when the students discovered their first shipment of poinsettias was infested with bugs. “It was an eye opener for them,” said Becker, who visited the classroom to teach the students how to identify the pests, monitor their population and provide control.

Wilkens asked the students what this experience taught them about challenges facing individuals doing this type of work as a business.

Student Ben Rhoads said it made him think about what organic farmers face as they try to control pests on a much larger crop.

This past spring the students ordered 40 different varieties of bedding plants including four different types of tomato and pepper plants to sell as a fundraiser. They also are selling the poinsettias in conjunction with their annual fruit sale. Forty of the poinsettias have been ordered for a wedding.

“Students are involved in all aspects of the operation,” Heppe said. “They pick out the varieties and research the ones that are disease resistant. The business class figures out funding and how to sell the plants.”

The mechanics class built all the tables in the greenhouse and installed the watering system.

Student Landon Clark said the watering system can be adjusted for strength and timing. A drip irrigation system is used for the poinsettias, and a nutrient nozzle feeding the plants also can be adjusted.

Heppe said the greenhouse was built with donations from the Smithville FFA Alumni, state funding and grants. He and Becker worked together to incorporate the greenhouse experiences in the ag curriculum.

“It was important to connect the students to their greenhouse and give them ownership of their material,” Becker said.

Students’ interests vary.

“The engineering aspect really intrigued a number of the students,” Becker said.

The greenhouse also provides a creative outlet. Of the flowers raised in the spring, he said, “I’ve seen students create some very showy hanging planters and patio planters.”

Speaking to the extension personnel following the tour, Becker said, “It’s been an awesome opportunity to see how extension can be involved with FFA.”

Other FFA chapters in the county also have sought his expertise, and it’s an area where he will continue to seek collaboration.

Laurie Sidle is a family and consumer sciences program assistant with OSU Extension Wayne County. She can be reached at 330-264-8722 or