Planting for Ag's Future

PHOTOS BY CURT NETTINGA/PLAINSMAN Chris Howard, the superintendent of the FFA Ag Adventure Center for the S.D. State Fair oversees a group of volunteers planting shrubs and other bushes and grasses Saturday morning.

HURON — A project two-plus years in the making leapt from the planning stage into creating this week, on the corner of Livestock Avenue and Second Street, on the S.D. State Fairgrounds.

That corner is right outside the FFA Ag Adventure Center – the popular site with all the baby farm animals – of which Chris Howard of Miller is the superintendent.

It has always been a popular corner during the fair, but it had become less a showpiece and more a place to walk past.

It was buzzing with activity Saturday morning, however, as more than a dozen volunteers got their hands in the soil to plant what will become an outdoor classroom, of a wide variety of shrubs, grasses and more.

“The idea originated with Chris,” said Julie Hoffmann, who owns East River Nursery in Huron with her husband Del. “He came to us and said he had a sponsor. He wanted to show the importance of planting pollinator plants.”

The ‘us’ is the South Dakota Nursery and Landscape Association (SDNLA), who agreed to take on the project and the planning part of it began.

“We worked to make it inclusive of the Value Added Ag people who come to the fair, as well as alternative agriculture,” Hoffmann said. “Aronia berry people. Many folks are interested in planting things that are both sustainable and that produce things that can be eaten. Like fruit trees and berries.”

So a berry patch, featuring elderberries, honeyberry – which do much better in our area than blueberries according to Hoffman – aronia, buffalo berry and western sand cherry. Some of these are native and do well here on the prairies.”

While there won’t be berries on the newly planted shrubs for this week’s state fair, in the future the plan is to have samples of the different varieties that are there.

The more than 450 plants going into the plot will be labeled and information for each is intended as well.

Freshly planted Allium line one of the sidewalks into the FFA Ag Adventure Center on the S.D. State Fairgrounds.

“We have seen many improvements inside the building over the last few years,” said Howard as he took a break from digging in the soil. “We added the gazebo a few years ago and just really wanted to do something outside that provide more educational opportunities with this landscape plan. What the plants are, what they like; things like that. The entire project – which has been ongoing and will continue for a while yet, is all  geared toward helping people be more aware of the plants around them.”

Howard’s tie to agriculture is life long and he taught high school ag before returning to the family ranch. “I ended up as the FFA Ag Center superintendent, mostly because I was friends with the wrong people!” he laughed. “But doing things like this lets me flex my ag muscles once a year.”

The teaching never ends, though, as a handful of FFA students were on hand Saturday morning, along with a strong turnout of FFA alumni, helping to share the knowledge with the next generation.

“It boils down to agriculture advocacy,” Howard said. “Even here in the heart of ag country we are more and more removed. It’s no longer ‘Grandma and grandpa have a farm…it’s my great-grandparents used to have a farm. People have an understanding of agriculture, but the base knowledge isn’t always there. This is a first step in that learning opportunity.”

Julie Hoffmann, left, the organizer of the planting taking place Saturday on the State Fairgrounds, visits with Isabelle Malley, who was pulling double duty Saturday. As a member of the Huron High School FFA, Malley was intalling plants, while at the same time, gathering information for a story in an upcoming edition of the Huron High School newspaper.

A team effort
“We have great sponsors,” Hoffmann said. “Many of our SDNLA members aren’t landscapers or nurseries, but are suppliers. Monrovia Growers, for example has donated more than $3,000 in plants. Golden Valley Hardscapes is a member from Story City, Iowa, and they donated a portion of the wood mulch that is covering the entire area.”

In addition to Hoffmann’s involvement with East River Nursery, James River Landscape Solution of Mitchell removed up to 10-inches of rock, dirt and old landscaping on the plot and is installing a drip watering system for the area. Hoffmann noted that during the digging and removing process, the JVLS co-owner Andy Jerke discovered a nest of yellowjackets below the surface. Jerke uncovered what could have been a huge problem, and sustained a few stings in the process.

“We have a variety of grasses,” Hoffmann continued. “Not all are truly native – more like spruced up cousins of native grasses – and we have ornamental grasses as well.”

This walkway on the south side of the FFA Ag Adventure Center, will be home to a variety of berry bushes, with information planned to help consumers wishing to learn about the shrubs and possibly plant in their yards.

All are items that would be beneficial to have planted in anyone’s yard, for the pollinators, for something pretty to look at, or for perhaps growing something to eat. Sometimes, it is all three at the same time.

“The sponsors and the association has covered the costs for everything,” Hoffmann said. “The FFA has contributed as well. Many of our volunteers here today have FFA ties. We also have folks from the Huron Master Gardeners helping us out. There has been a great deal of volunteer labor that has gone into the monumental amount of preparations just to get to this point.”

“Ultimately, our goal is to provide information, through these plantings and through the programs that take place inside the building to begin helping people understand the connection,”Howard said. “To help them better know where their food comes from. The high school and college students who run the building during fair week are our front line ag ambassadors.”

Phil Hudson, from James Valley Landscape Solutions in Mitchell, has young helpers involved in the installation of the watering system for the project.

Planning ahead
An approximately 1,200 square foot area of the plat is not being planted this year, but will be next spring, as a variety of ag-related seeds are planned. “The kind of things that you see as you drive by on the highway,” Hoffmann said. “Most people can recognize corn and maybe soybeans or sunflowers. There will be those planted, along with other crops like milo and sorghum, so people can put a name with a picture, so to speak.”

“We expect to have non-GMO (genetically modified organism) and GMO plants side by side to see the difference or lack of difference,” Howard said. “All protein – whether plant or animal – comes from somewhere.”

He noted that through the centuries, agriculture has evolved and become more efficient, a necessary step when there are few producers on few acres asked to provide for an ever increasing population.

For Howard, the opportunity to provide the educational experience to people – particularly young people – is what interests him. “You know, I am not rich, at least monetarily, from this work. But the ability to interact and share knowledge through FFA and through projects like this is well worth it.”

This week while you stroll the fairgrounds and marvel at the newly opened DEX, make sure to check out the ongoing horticulture education project, right next door, at the FFA Ag Adventure Center.