OBERLIN, Ohio — It’s the first two lines of the FFA motto: Learning to do, doing to learn.
And on any given day in the Lorain County JVS landscape and greenhouse management class, you’ll see students putting the motto into action.
Beth Berthold, program instructor and FFA adviser, feels the best way to connect with her students is to give them hands-on experiences.
Students push wheelbarrows of landscaping pavers across the classroom, handing bricks to one another, weaving a garden path. Others arrange fresh cut flowers in large vases and tend to flower beds scattered all around the room.
Even more students can be found checking on plants and testing soils in a large greenhouse toward the back of the classroom.
Three large, wheeled cylindrical towers, with herbs, flowers and vegetables cascading from them, are the newest addition to the room.
Senior Don Sabella said they have been able to harvest from the towers five times since receiving them at the beginning of the school year.
The aeroponic towers were purchased with a $3,000 grant from the Lorain County JVS Educational Foundation.
Plants grown in the towers use a combination of air, water and light but do not require soil, explained Sabella. A 24-gallon reservoir at the base of the tower supplies water and nutrients to the plants, delivered through a drip system.
As Sabella checks the small, bright red tomatoes hanging from a massive plant that looks to have outgrown the tower, he says they’ve had to make some adjustments to the setup.
He and his classmates added large plastic supports to the tower to work as a trellis system. The aeroponics towers are also equipped with large light bars that are on timers to provide the right amount of light to the plants.
Sabella said, one day, upon entering the classroom, he noticed the plants were looking a little “droopy,” and discovered a power outage to the system.
“They learn to troubleshoot on the fly,” said Berthold.
Sabella said he took an interest in the aeroponics towers because he feels they provide a solution to a growing issue in agriculture — the need for land to grow crops.
“We need more space for agriculture,” he said. “This is a more modern way into the future.” Even though he doesn’t have a farm background, Sabella hopes to have his own greenhouse one day.
Following a path of pavers back to the greenhouse, Sydney Collier, a junior in the class, is tending to a large tomato plant of her own.
A large tank filled with water and 20 tilapia fish are the base to this aquaponics system, which was added to the classroom three years ago.
Collier explained the fertilized water travels from the tank to the tomato plant and clean water is filtered back into the tank. The fish in this system are the key difference between an aquaponic and hydroponic system.
While both are soilless systems, aquaponics uses fish or other aquatic creatures to provide nutrients to the plants. Collier said clay rocks are used to provide the roots of the plants something to grab onto and support the plant.
Like Sabella, Collier had to troubleshooting on her own when she discovered the tomato plant was thriving but wasn’t producing any fruit.
“We learned we didn’t have anything to pollinate the tomatoes,” she said. So, Collier had to do it manually. By gently rubbing each of the blossoms on the plant with her fingers, she transferred pollen from bloom to bloom.
Collier had no idea there was something called “FFA” until she joined the class. There are only two schools (other than the JVS) in Lorain County that offer an FFA program and both Collier’s and Sabella’s home schools do not offer the program.
Collier said, when she toured the career center her sophomore year, she thought the aquaponics setup was “so cool.” Now she wants to pursue a career as a park ranger.
Both Sabella and Collier competed in the FFA nursery and landscape CDE contest, taking eighth in the state with their team, and Sabella placed 25th out of 130 individually.
Berthold said it’s these hands-on experiences — whether in the classroom, through FFA or job placement — that stick with students the most.
“I love that we can bring students into FFA in different facets,” she said. “You never know what’s going to catch people’s interest.”