Apr. 24—After the annual Northwest Whitfield High School FFA plant sale was dramatically impacted last year by the COVID-19 pandemic, students, teachers and customers were relieved to return to normalcy for the 16th annual edition last weekend.
"This was our best plant sale yet," said Janet Robbins, Northwest's FFA adviser and agriculture teacher. Customers "just came in droves."
"We were slammed this year" when gates opened to the public for the sale at 8 a.m. on April 16, said senior and FFA veteran Julia Kelly Ralston. "We love it, though, helping out" at the sale.
"They were lined up out the door, even before 8 a.m.," said FFA member Tyson Russell. "It's a great business, for sure."
"The geraniums are really popular this year, (and) the calibrachoa and vinca," too, said Kelly Ralston, who plans to attend Auburn University and major in agriculture education to become an elementary agriculture teacher. "We sold out of those" latter two in the first three hours.
More than 120 varieties of plants, vegetables and flowers were available at the sale, and "the kids do all the work," Robbins said. "This is our only annual fundraiser, and we lost a lot of money last year" with the scaled-down edition.
"These kids work on this since September, and they missed it last year," Robbins said. "I had to do it (basically) by myself — students were in the parking lot, and I'd have to wave to them — it was the saddest thing ever."
In addition to horticulture, the sale offered everything from cupcakes to crafts for purchase, she said. The FFA program maintains a stable membership of 160-180 students — 174 currently — and they "do a great job with everything" involved with the plant sale.
"If something needs doing, we do it," said Russell, who plans to attend Dalton State College for two years, then move on to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. "Everyone steps up to the plate."
"We have customers who have come all 16 years," and they know what they want, as "we sold half (our inventory) by 11 a.m." on April 16, Robbins said. "A lot of alums come back, and they even bring their babies, so it's such a family time."
Among the regulars is Cody Cantrell, who shopped the sale April 16 with his wife, Courtney, and their baby, Caroline.
"It's her first plant sale," he said as he gestured to Caroline. "We have a whole table (of purchases) over there, (from) four hanging baskets (to) vegetables (to) flowers for our flower bed."
Cantrell is not only a graduate of Northwest, but an FFA alumnus, and he learned some valuable lessons about plants he carries to this day, he said.
"You understand what each plant does, what it needs, and not to overcrowd (them)."
"We also like to support local," said Courtney Cantrell. "This is a great experience for the kids."
Indeed, "I wish we had this when I was in school here," said Chris Blevins, a Northwest graduate who attends the plant sale annually. "I would have learned a lot from it."
"My son, Will, will be at Northwest" starting with the 2021-22 academic year, and "I hope he'll be able to do this, because it's a great program," Blevins said. "We'll see if he's got the green thumb."
Sarah Jennings joined FFA as a junior, and "I wish I had done it all four years of high school, because it's definitely something I enjoy," said the senior, who plans to attend Dalton State College to major in early childhood education. "I love all the people, (who) are all sweet, kind and open to others, even new people."
FFA offers various experiences, said Kelly Ralston, who shows dairy heifers, is enrolled in an agriculture leadership class, and assists with the Bruin Boxes food program. That latter endeavor provides boxes of food every couple of weeks to nearly 40 Bruin families.
"We've been working on that since August, and it's very busy," said Russell, who plans to major in civil or ag engineering. "It was supposed to start small, but it took off like a roller coaster."
Russell also loves the Farm to School program, where local elementary students visit Northwest to learn about agriculture from FFA members, he said.
"We teach them, we have a lot of games and animals, and it's really fun."
The only concern FFA members had with some of this year's crop of flowers for the sale was "they were growing too fast," Jennings said. "We had to keep them from getting out of control."
Buying from the plant sale is a way to support FFA, which "I like, and I can tell they're very excited to show off their work, (which) they should be," Blevins said. "They should be proud, because they do a really good job."
He made two trips to the plant sale April 16, the first in the morning to "make sure we got tomato plants before they all sold out," then the second with his wife, for flowers, he said.
"What we get here seems to be of a better quality, and they do better because they've been grown in the local soil."