High School + Horticulture= Happy Holidays

Story by Jeannie Stone

Larry Thornton, agriculture teacher for the Area Vocational Center housed at Russellville High School, walks gingerly to the back of the classroom. He points to the broken mason jars and beans scattered on a large piece of cardboard. Failed science experiment? Hardly.

“This,” he said, “is a little lesson I call ‘The Power of the Bean.’” It shows how much beans expand when moistened. Thornton, who has taught for 31 years, finds that a hand-on approach to education is just what his students need. And the annual poinsettia sale, beginning Dec.1st and running until Christmas break arrives or the last plant is sold, is just the ticket to motivate his students to apply what they’ve learned in class.

The Vo-Tech poinsettia sales have a long tradition. “They started way before I got here,” Thornton said. He has taught in Russellville for seven years following teaching posts at Lamar High School and Dardanelle High School (which closed its agri program). “Lamar still has an agriculture program but not horticulture which is why some of their students come here.” The Area Vocational Center offers classes to students in 13 schools from Pope, Johnson and Yell counties.

“The poinsettia project has a dual purpose. First, of course, is to raise funds for the program, and the second goal is for the students to learn plant maintenance.

“We start with rooted cuttings,” he said. “The students learn about the different stages of bud development, and what they have to do to get it there. This is where we shine, the hands-on experiences.”

Funds from the sale are used to purchase supplies and pay memberships to FFA, and students are escorted to the national FFA convention in the spring to get a bigger picture of their industry and to network.

Zak Wells of Dardanelle attended the convention with Thornton last year. Wells is interested in keeping his family farm going in Yell County and continuing his family’s cattle farming in Perry County.

“We don’t teach a special animal science class, but horticulture can give him a good foundation,” Thornton said. “There’s so much they can get here. Horticulture is the largest industry in our culture. Two to three percent of our population actually produces all our food, yet 20 percent of everybody who got up to go to work today are involved in some phase such as the processing or marketing within the agriculture industry.”

Thornton’s enthusiasm hasn’t diminished over the years. “I love agriculture. I feel this is the most important class at the career center based on the fact we deal with the food industry and how important that is for all of us.”

That philosophy has carried Thornton from a city in Nebraska where he grew up.

“I knew I wanted to get into agriculture, but I couldn’t afford my own farm,” he said.

Thornton earned a degree in animal science and uses his knowledge of employing pedigrees as a selection tool in monthly columns he writes for The Working Horse magazine. He is an authority of the subject in the equine business, particularly in the race horse world.

“This is the backbone of our country, what we train students to do in Vo-Tech,” he said. At the Area Vocational Center purchasing a poinsettia is an educational investment. Take Hannah Fink from Dardanelle, for instance.

“When she began the class in August she was so conscientious in wanting to choose classes that would help her break into a career. She was nervous and apprehensive and, now, tending to the poinsettias, she is very proud of what she’s accomplished.”

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