Pocahontas County High School’s first period horticulture class is growing hydroponic bib lettuce and basil.  Students manage the germination, the nutrient solution fertility and pH, and the environmental conditions in the greenhouse. Pictured are Tara Doss (left) and Charity Warder as they monitor plant growth in the hydroponic lettuce demonstration.  Hydroponic production is a method of growing plants without soil.  Later this winter students will germinate, nurture, and market bedding plants, hanging baskets and other containers in the greenhouse for spring sales. Photo courtesy of Erwin Berry

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

The agriculture department at Pocahontas County High School has become a multi-faceted educational experience, spanning plant and animal sciences.

While most of the Career and Technical Education [CTE] classes have one Simulated Workplace business, the ag department has two – the Plant Malones operates the greenhouse and PC Meats operates the meats lab.

Much like the students, ag teacher Erwin Berry is always on the run – from classroom to greenhouse to meats lab – making sure everything is operating properly.

With the schedule change, Berry now has horticulture as a year-long class, so the students are expanding the kinds of plants they are growing, as well as they processes they use.

“We’re going to have our greenhouse operating in the spring and in the fall,” Berry said. “Right now, we’re growing hydroponic bib lettuce. We sat down and spent about three days planning the different plants we were going to grow. The kids had some ideas on some plants that they wanted to grow. We balanced color. We balanced foliage, but we also had to balance what we could actually pull off successfully.”

In operating the greenhouse, the students not only learn how to plant seeds and whether they should start from seed or plug, but they also have to keep the wood stove burning. The greenhouse has radiant flooring and the students know the proper way to stoke a fire in the wood stove and keep the plants happy and healthy.

Right now, the students are working with the hydroponic system and monitoring the flow of water and fertilizer through the channels to grow bib lettuce and basil.

“We put the plants in these little trays and we put fertilizer and water into it,” senior and greenhouse foreman Savannah Arbogast said. “Then once we see them sprouting up, we transfer them and have them hooked up to these little hoses. We fill up the pump underneath with the water and fertilizer mix and then it just runs through and fertilizes them. That’s basically the process.”

During a visit to the greenhouse, Arbogast and fellow students Brittany Matheny, Arianya Cagle and Charity Warder discussed the simulated workplace and agreed that they enjoyed the business aspect of learning.

“I think it’s really helpful,” Cagle said. “If a kid wants to do something like this, they can start young. It gets you more experience.”

At this time, the greenhouse is a little skimpy, but come spring, the students will be busy with new growth and business opportunities.

“In the spring time, we have our markets here,” Berry said. “We do sell here [at the school] but we’re not on the way to anywhere. People in Marlinton go to Lewisburg and people in Bartow and Durbin go to Elkins. A lot of people will go to Franklin. There’s more and more people that are stopping here because our plants are better. I’m just repeating what customers tell me.”

What makes the plant so much better is that the students understand what they are doing. They know the plants and they know how to help match people with the right plants for their needs.

“They understand that the root system controls everything,” Berry said. “The thing we teach kids is, check out the roots. If you pull them out and you see that all the roots have hit the bottom of the pot and the roots are very prolific – that’s a big key to transplanting and getting them started out in your garden, your landscape, your pots, whatever you’re using – and my kids know about the growing habits of every single plant.”

Berry has witnessed his students interaction with customers and is never disappointed when they make recommendations.

“They’ll ask them, ‘what kind of exposure do you get;’ ‘do you get afternoon sun;’ ‘if you get afternoon sun, then you probably don’t want this one, you want this one,’” he said. “That’s big. The marketing part is big. They do a great job. They understand the habits of each plant and they recommend things, too.”

Along with selling plants at the greenhouse, the students sell at area farmers markets and to Southern States.

“Southern States buys probably seventy-five percent of our tomato and vegetable plants,” Berry said. “That’s a big deal. What’s really cool – they’re not just buying them just because they’re from the school. They’re buying them because they are the best plants they can buy.”

The other side of the ag department – animal science – is rather new to PCHS, but has become a quick success for students and the school. With the addition of the state-of-the-art meats lab, the students are now able to process animals for members of 4-H  and FFA as well as other customers.

Prior to the addition of the lab, students who participated in the 4-H/FFA Ham, Bacon and Egg Sale had to have their pork processed at Alleghany Meats in Monterey, Virginia. Now, with training from the same place, Berry has been able to pass the knowledge down to his students.

“We’re going to do all the hams and bacons this year,” he said. “We have to get them slaughtered at a USDA inspected facility since we’re selling them to the public.

Since the meats lab does not have a kill floor, the students cannot, at this time, slaughter the animals for processing, but they can process the meat after the animal is prepared.

The students have the ability to process pork, beef, sheep, goat and deer. The meats lab has a smoker in which the students can also smoke the hams and other cuts of meat to the customer’s order.

Two meats lab students – Chara Grimes and Ryan Bennett – recently cured a few hams and helped Berry explain the process.
“We’ve been curing these,” Grimes said of several hams. “We put them in the sacks. They’re coming along really good as you can see.”

“They cured them with brown sugar and salt,” Berry added. “They’re into what is called salt equalization where it’s a warmer temperature. We had them at thirty-nine and that kept it from spoiling, but now, the salt might be concentrated in certain areas where we basically put salt and brown sugar on them, so now with this warmer temperature, the salt can spread out and make sure that the ham doesn’t spoil. Next, we go into a heating room up to eighty-five degrees where they’ll dry out.”

After the hams go through the entire drying process, they are taken into the smoker where they are smoked over hickory wood chips.

“It used to take us about ten days to smoke fifty, sixty hams and bacons, and now it takes us a couple days,” Berry said.
“It’s really convenient,” Grimes added.

The latest venture in the meats lab is deer jerky sticks, thanks to a request from student Clayton Shinaberry.

The meats lab has a sausage maker with tubes to make different sizes of sausage and Shinaberry asked Berry if he could try to make some jerky sticks with deer hams. Berry agreed and the test run turned out well.

“I was a little bit nervous because I’ve never done this before,” Berry said. “The kids actually had to educate me about this thing [the sausage maker]. I didn’t know much about it. Clayton just made big long links and we draped them over the racks.”

The students sampled the finished product and while there were some who said it wasn’t spicy enough, they did enjoy it. Shinaberry’s idea turned into a money maker for the class, as Berry said the students will make beef jerky sticks to sell.

Whether they are preparing hams and bacons for a competition, or a deer for a local or out-of-state hunter, the students enjoy their time in the meats lab, and don’t have a problem with being around carcasses.

“I’m a completer in this,” Grimes said. “I’ve done it since my freshman year. I just wanted to take meats lab for fun because Berry’s really cool to work with. He’s pretty chill and laid back and he helps you do stuff. It’s always nice to work with other kids who have never done anything like this, too.”

For Berry, the meats lab is a great way for students to learn a good trade that they could use in the future, but it also shows them how to provide a service to the community.

“The meats lab provides something the customer really wants instead of just supporting a good cause,” he said. “We try to make this a business. We do emphasize the customer aspect of it. We want them to come here because this is where they’re going to get the best product.”

Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at sastewart@pocahontastimes.com

Third in a series about the Career and Technical Education programs at Pocahontas County High School.