Sutherlin FFA

Wes Crawford, the FFA advisor and ag science teacher at Sutherlin High School in Sutherlin, Ore., checks an online order with the plants before delivering them to a drive-thru customer at the school on May 1. Crawford and a crew of volunteers cared for the vegetable and flower starts in the greenhouse and then worked the sale, replacing FFA students who were not allow on campus due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

SUTHERLIN, Ore. — FFA students throughout the Pacific Northwest had planted hundreds of vegetable and flower seeds, but then the doors to their high school greenhouses were closed.

The shutdown of schools in early March was part of the effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.

While students continued their education with online classes, they were unable to return to campuses to water, weed and pinch their plant starts. But at most schools, depending on how administrations interpreted the health guidelines, FFA advisors, ag teachers, school staff, parents or FFA alumni stepped up to continue what the students started.

The plants were cared for and eventually in late April and early May online plant sales and drive-thru pickup sales were held. The process was similar to ordering and picking up take-out food.

FFA advisors have reported that sales of the veggie starts and flowers have been as strong as past years when customers were able to wander through school greenhouses and make their own choices.

“The kids 100 percent prepared all the plants, planting the seeds and designing the baskets,” said Abby Chase, the FFA advisor and ag teacher at Central High School in Independence, Ore. “It’s a huge role by the students to get everything ready to go. Unfortunately, they don’t get to see the fruits of their labor. But they gave us something to sell.”

Plant sales each spring have become a major fundraiser for FFA chapters. Chase estimated the Central chapter earns a profit of about $7,000 from its sale. Wes Crawford, the FFA advisor and ag science teacher at Sutherlin High School, said that chapter earns about $8,000 from its sale.

That money helps fund future FFA activities and travel.

“The plant sale is incredibly important,” said Regan Leatherwood, the CEO of the Sutherlin FFA Greenhouse business. “It funds a huge portion of the chapter’s activities for the next year. If this sale hadn’t happened, our FFA members would miss out on some opportunities next year.

“We’ve gotten incredible support from volunteers at our school,” she added of those who cared for the plants and helped with the pick-up process.

Sutherlin school staff, parents and FFA alumni volunteered to help.

Sutherlin FFA students remained involved by setting up the plant sale website on their home computers and setting the schedule for the times that volunteers would help.

“The students have been very engaged, holding virtual meetings with the team leaders,” Crawford said. “They’ve come up with the plans and the process to get this done. They’ve been very adaptive.”

While Sutherlin has been able to have volunteers take the place of the students, Chase and her co-FFA advisor have been the only two allowed at Central to care for the plants and to be involved on the pick-up days. That’s been the same situation for the Bend area FFA, where co-advisors Jeff Papke and Jaimee Brentano have been the only ones allowed to work through the online sale process.

“To not have the sale would hurt the kids,” Papke said. “We wouldn’t be able to recoup our expenses and wouldn’t have those dollars to invest back into the FFA program.

“These kids’ world was turned upside down on them on March 13,” he added. “They put their heart and soul into so many projects that were just stopped. So it is important, of great importance, that we continue through with this.”

The FFA advisors said the community response has been equal to or better than in the past despite the circumstances that have kept customers out of the greenhouses and in their cars. The success has been passed on to the students via emails and texts.

“People have taken it on faith to buy our plant projects,” Leatherwood said. “It’s such a huge change. It’s difficult to buy things without seeing them, but the community response has been incredible.”

“That’s a testament to the quality of the plants that the kids got started,” Crawford said.

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