High school students in New Jersey are getting a jump-start on agriculture-related careers at the Monmouth County Career Center (MCCC) in Freehold.
The center’s award-winning horticulture, floral and landscaping programs give students hands-on experience in areas such as floral design, greenhouse operations, landscape and turf management. Their training often leads to employment after high school.
“We’ve had several students find jobs at golf courses, and others have started their own lawn care and landscaping businesses,” says John Neyhart, FFA advisor and landscaping/turf instructor at the career center. “Many have gone on to work in nurseries and garden centers or in floral departments.”
Connecting students to careers in the green industry is a natural fit in New Jersey. According to the New Jersey Nursery and Landscape Association, the green industry accounts for 40 to 45 percent of the state’s annual farm production and an estimated 60,000 jobs throughout New Jersey.
Qualifying high school students in Monmouth County attend shared-time programs at the career center for 2 1/2 hours per day, five days per week. They spend their first year in the center’s exploration program and their junior and senior years in more specific training programs that fit their interests and abilities. The center has its own FFA chapter with 48 members.
“What we’ve found is that some kids who may not have been highly successful in academics are drawn to agriculture and often find hidden talents here,” says Cheryl Alfonse, floral design instructor at MCCC. “Some kids who come to us may not be successful when given a pencil and paper, but when they get other tools in their hands, they get so excited about what they’re learning and become more motivated to learn.”
A Living Laboratory
MCCC has one of the few golf courses in the nation located on school property, and students in the horticulture landscaping program maintain it themselves. The golf course was designed and built in 2009 using students’ ideas with the help of local professionals who donated labor, an irrigation system, fertilizer, soil for the green, sprinkler heads and other materials.
“The golf course is our living laboratory,” Neyhart says. “Students do all the maintenance, including aerating and top-dressing it, watering, mowing, raking sand traps and all the other things a regular golf course needs.”
Students also compete each year at the New Jersey FFA Turf Management Career Development Event, and they have placed first in the state 14 times since 1998. Nursery and landscape teams from MCCC have also won best in the state four of the last 10 years and have represented New Jersey at the National FFA Convention & Expo, where they’ve won bronze.
Students in the career center’s horticulture floral program rotate between classes in floral design and greenhouse operations. The center has its own floral shop and greenhouse, which are open to the public, and students are responsible for growing and marketing greenhouse crops, such as poinsettias and geraniums, and filling orders for customers. Students also enter plants and flowers in the New Jersey High School Horticulture Exposition every March.
“It’s very exciting because they prepare all year for the expo, and we typically have more entries than any other chapter in New Jersey,” Alfonse says.
Laurie Neyhart teaches greenhouse operations at the career center.
“I often see students come to us not realizing they have talent, and then because agriculture is such a vast industry, they always find one or two things they enjoy and are good at,” she says. “To see that confidence being built in them and helping guide them toward something they are good at is extremely satisfying.”
A Positive Outcome
John Humphrey entered MCCC’s turf management program his freshman year because he enjoyed golf and working outdoors. After graduating in 2008, he went on to complete a 20-week professional golf turf management program at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Today, he works as assistant golf course superintendent at Beacon Hill Country Club in Atlantic Highlands, N.J.
“If it weren’t for the career center, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” Humphrey says. “I competed in the FFA Turf Management Career Development Event my senior year, and I got first place, which gave me a $1,500 scholarship to go to Rutgers.” While at Rutgers, Humphrey landed an internship at Beacon Hill Country Club.
“After I graduated, my boss decided to hire me full time,” he says. “Now I supervise crews who are working on the golf course. I love working outdoors and keeping the grass healthy and green.”
Katelin Hulse studied floral design, landscaping and greenhouse management at the career center and graduated in 2013. She is now attending Brookdale Community College in Middletown, N.J., and plans to transfer to a university and pursue a bachelor’s degree in plant science.
“The career center offers very hands-on learning and gives you the skills you will need to work in that field,” Hulse says. “I want to work in greenhouse management selling plants or flowers wholesale. I love that field because it’s peaceful and creative. Working with plants puts you in a good state-of-mind.”
– Jessica Mozo