The agriculture department at Pontiac Township High School had the opportunity to show off its latest developments to State Rep. Tom Bennett on Monday. In addition to meeting with ag teachers Parker Bane and Jesse Faber, Bennett also had the opportunity to talk and tour the department with FFA officers and PTHS ag students.
    The meeting started with Bennett talking to a few of the high school’s FFA officers about the highlights of their year. An upcoming highlight that students discussed, is the chapter exchange program, which the high school has been taking part in for around 10 years.
    “I’ve been to California, Minnesota and this year we are going to Georgia,” Cam Tickle, one of the FFA officers, said.
    This will be the chapter’s 10th exchange event. FFA Officer Drew Wilson said the program is about taking local FFA students to another FFA chapter from around the country to see how they run their ag program and what it entails.
    “We usually go for about four to five days,” Tickle said. “Over the past two years, we’ve stayed with host families, which allows us to build relationships with other students and also look at their chapter ideas and see if there’s any benefit we could take from their program and incorporate into ours. Our goal is to get exposed to new elements of agriculture and also make our FFA program better.”
    In addition to visiting other chapters, Faber, FFA advisor and ag teacher, said some chapters have had the opportunity to visit PTHS, too.
    “Of course there are logistical and cost barriers associated with hosting an FFA chapter, but we have hosted chapters from Minnesota and Florida over the years,” Faber said. “It’s an open invitation, but we haven’t hosted as many chapters as we’ve wanted to.”
    Students also spoke briefly with Bennett about the FFA’s first Indian Summit. In an effort to bring leadership training to younger students in the area, the FFA organized an Indian Summit, which was held on Oct. 7. The event was attended by 50 seventh- and eighth-grade students from PTHS feeder schools.
    “We were lacking recruitment at the junior high level from our feeder schools, so we thought we could design a leadership day for them,” Tickle said.
    “The high school students have many opportunities to learn about leadership, but once you get down to the junior high levels, they don’t have as many opportunities to do leadership things outside of the school day. We offered them an opportunity to come and work with us so that we can have more leaders walking the halls at PTHS.”
    The event was not just organized by the FFA, but also included help from the Key Club and student council.
    “One of the parts that I worked on was a challenge course,” Lucas Roe, an FFA officer, said. “In a way, it was an obstacle course, but it was designed to challenge their minds, not just their physical abilities.”
    One of the visual highlights of the meeting was PTHS Crop Science students showing off three tower gardens around the high school. One of the tower gardens is located in the ag shop and the other two were placed in the high school’s special needs classrooms.
    “This is our hydroponic water tower garden,” Emma Jacobs, a PTHS senior and FFA officer said. “We’re using it to grow basil, lettuce, tomatoes and peppers. The basil that we’ve harvested is being used by the LACC’s culinary arts program and our lettuce has been going to the high school cafeteria.”
    The bright lighting fixtures surrounding the tower garden are used to mimic sunlight. The lights are set on a timer and so is the water.
    “This tower garden is running all the time,” Jacobs said. “They are watered for 15 minutes, every hour.”
    “We’ve got a pump that takes water from the base of the tower, where the water is stored, up to the top,” added Crop Science student Logan Verdun. “Once it gets to the top, the water runs down into the little cups where it mixes with nutrients to help sustain the plant.”
    The ag department received the Tower Gardens in mid-September and have been harvesting and taking care of the lettuce and basil since the beginning. In total, Faber guessed the lettuce has been harvested three times. The tomatoes and peppers, on the other hand, were planted in early November.
    “In total, we’ve harvested about 42 ounces of basil and a similar amount of lettuce,” Faber said.     “All of the lettuce has been given to our cafeteria, but they didn’t have a use for the basil, but Chef Scott Rowan has really appreciated it, I think they are putting that to good use.”
    Each day, students are required to add water to the tower garden structure and also to check the acidity of the water. The goal is to keep the acidity in the Garden Towers somewhere between 5.5 and 6.5.
    “Basically it just means that we have to keep putting nutrients in the water,” Jacobs said. “We partnered with a couple of the special needs classrooms.”
    The systems in the special needs classrooms are exactly the same as what is in the ag shop. Faber said before the plants can be added to the Tower Garden they start out as seeds.
    “We have to start seeds about two weeks before we can transplant them to the tower garden,” Faber said. “So, all of the special needs students got to be involved with planting the seeds and now they get to watch them grow.”