I’m getting ready for class today. Sounds odd, but true. No. I’m not going back to school, rather, I’m hosting a field trip at the tree farm.
I’m doing this because I am a staunch supporter of education that introduces real world experiences. Like when I went to New Mountain Hill Elementary to talk to a bunch of kindergarteners about trees a few years ago. I took a few show-and-tell items with me. I was set to amaze a horde of 5-year-olds with cool tree stuff.
I was sure that I was helping to create a future generation of tree farmers. Wide eyes. Enthusiastic faces. One kid operated the Power Point for me because I couldn’t figure out how to use the remote.
I thought I was getting through to them until I realized that the #1 question from each class shot a hole in my dreams.
“Where do you keep the cows? My granddaddy has cows. It’s not a farm unless you’ve got cows.”
Kindergarten is such a waste.
Today will be different. The Nursery Management class from Auburn University is coming to visit. Their professor, Dr. Weaver, contacted me several weeks ago to ask if he could bring his students over to pick my brain about running a nursery. They are making this trip as part of their grade, which means that they are forced to participate.
You should know, first of all, that I am an accidental horticulturist. There may not be much brain to pick. I didn’t take any formal training for this in college. I have no academic credentials. I was in my mid-twenties when I decided to shift gears and ended up here 40 years later.
So, I am intimidated by college students who have way more of a plant pedigree than I’ll ever have. And I swear, if one of them asks me where the cows are, I’m gonna slap him right there in front of the professor.
It’s 1:00 and the cars are starting to roll in. I am a handshaker, so I get busy. Young faces with names like Alan, and Mary, and Cole. One young face approaches.
“Hi. I’m Dr. Weaver.”
I wanted to ask to see his driver’s license.
“It’s good to see you again,” he says.
I’m reaching way back in my mental data files and coming up blank. How could he be glad to see me “again” when I can’t recall ever meeting him.
He goes on. “You may not remember me.” I try not to give myself away. “But I came here years ago when I was taking some horticulture classes at Columbus Tech. Our Ornamental Production class came here for a field trip.”
Holy Cannoli! I remember those field trips. Students from a tech school trying to figure out what they wanted to do with the rest of their lives. Listening to me drone on about growing plants. I was so disappointed when the school canceled the program.
Now, standing right in front of me is a guy who hung in there. He went on to a big University and went through the grind of earning his PhD in Horticulture. All because he came here on a field trip all those years ago. At least, that’s what I told this group of students today.
I never know how an event like this will go. I had a group of elementary students from Meriwether County come visit one spring morning. A caravan of Blue Bird busses pulled into the farm and dumped about 80 kids and teachers on me. It was a little like recess on steroids. Fortunately, no trees were harmed.
College students are more focused than 10-year-olds. We’re standing around in a circle. About 15 of us. All the guys are wearing ball caps. One guy is dressed in camo and says he drove straight here from North Carolina. Only two girls; one Asian and the other from small town Alabama. We are getting to know each other.
I gave them my intro-to-running-a-nursery speech. I was a little rusty, but the basics are simple. Manage your water well, treat it like a business and not a hobby, and never hesitate to ask questions of people who have been in the nursery business longer than you.
“You do those three things, and you’ll learn how to make it all work.”
There were several nods of affirmation and a few yawns. Tough crowd. Then there were questions. I’ll try to keep it lively.
Q: “How long have you been doing this?”
A: “Since Mario and Luigi took over the Nintendo world.”
Q: “Entiendo, what?”
Q: “How much money did you have to borrow from the bank to get started?”
A: “I used to have five children, but the bank sold two of them on the black market, if that tells you anything.”
Q: “You’re kidding, right?”
Q: “How do you decide what to grow and how many to grow? Like, how do you read the market trends?”
A: “I have a Magic 8 Ball that I consult; a pair of loaded dice, and a dart board with names of plants on it.”
Q: “No way?”
A: “Way. I’m not always right but the nursery trends are so fickle no one can predict them anyway.”
We broke the circle and took a walking tour of the nursery. We took a look at the pump station and talked more about water usage.
Q: “How much water to you use each year?”
A: “Average 7 million gallons a year.”
We walked up across the terraces to the top of the hill. A young man by the name of Cole was right behind me. He paid me the best compliment of the day.
“You don’t walk like you’re 66 years old.”
I guess he’s been chewing on that for a while, ever since we did all the introductions. My age came up because I explained to them that I’m a few months away from retiring and closing the nursery down. White hair and chin whiskers look ancient to a sophomore in college.
“I get along alright for an old guy,” I said. “But I do keep an oxygen tank in my truck just in case.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
They asked a lot of questions over the course of the afternoon. Fertilizers and potting soils. Shipping and handling. Pruning schedules. Supply chains. All of it evidence that Dr. Weaver must be pushing all the right buttons in his Nursery Management class.
I like this group of young folks. Horticulture is not a popular field when you look at the University programs being offered. It falls under the umbrella of the College of Agriculture and not many come from that kind of background. So, we need them. This industry needs them.
I think sometimes about who is going to run the next nursery. Who’s willing to put in the hours and go home in the evening with torn jeans and a sore back? Who’s willing to work hard at doing something they really love to do? Who is going to grow the next crop of trees?
I hope it’s one of them.