Converting Challenge Into Opportunity: The Spring 2020 Plant Sale

Illustration by Sigrid Lorfing

For the last three years, Assistant Professor of Agriculture, Dr. Matthew Wilson, alongside agriculture students, has run the Arkansas Tech University Spring Plant Sale. He arrived at ATU in Fall 2017, confident that ATU’s version of a similar model at most universities with a horticulture program would be comparable to the sales he had managed in the past. Those who are familiar with the annual sale know how passionate its patrons are when it comes to obtaining their individual coveted tomato and pepper varieties. Folks warned Wilson of how popular the sale was at the university.

“I’ve run a $144,000 sale at a large research institution in a weekend,” said Wilson, not feeling phased by this new endeavor. When he arrived at his first sale at 7:00am on April 13th, 2018, people were lined up around the corner to get in. This surprise solidified to him the importance of this annual plant sale to the department and the community.

The spring 2020 semester began the same way for Wilson and his horticulture students with the gathering of seeds, media, and pots in preparation for the popular sale. However, the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic ushered in major implications for the hands-on work necessary for these horticulture students. Faculty, many staff and all students transitioned to a virtual environment in a matter of days. For Wilson, this meant four greenhouses full of edible and ornamental plants that students had diligently nurtured since January that still needed to be cared for. Not wanting to see that work go to waste—literally to the campus compost pile—and disappoint the community, Wilson began the process of planning, networking and executing what would be considered the “2020 solution” of the ATU Spring Plant Sale.

“Jennifer Lewter (senior instructor of biology and market manager)  had visited with me previously about online solutions for the plant sale through the online farmer’s market, [Russellville Community Market],” said Wilson. That conversation occurred prior to 2020, and Wilson shied away from the idea so as not to compete with local growers and farmers.

“Additionally, the logistics of moving shop over to the train depot on a weekly basis…we have entirely too much plant material to do that regularly,” said Wilson. This past conservation, however, ended up being the inspiration point for how the annual sale would be conducted for the Spring 2020 semester.

Matthew Wilson
Matthew Wilson

After getting all the necessary permissions, the solution appeared ideal for the restrictions on in-person activities due to the pandemic. Orders through the Russellville Community Market are placed by consumers starting at noon on Fridays and the market closes on Sunday evenings. Then, those orders are picked up from the Russellville Train Depot—a central hub in Russellville—on Tuesday evenings. “We got the orders on Monday,” said Wilson. “That allowed us to make labels and pull plant materials. Then, on Tuesdays, I would water and fertilize early in the morning and begin pulling the materials we needed.”

After that, Wilson loaded the orders onto a cattle trailer to transport to the train station and followed the protocols established by the Russellville Community Market for organization and easy distribution to the consumers. Although all students were virtual, Wilson didn’t have to act alone. The ATU farm staff, Benny Robertson and Stephen Daniel, and essential faculty members, Dr. Willy Hoefler and Dr. Justin Killingsworth, would tag team alongside Wilson with watering duties to ensure the plants continued to thrive as the early summer months approached.

“In the heat of summer, it would take three hours to hand water all the houses each day,” said Wilson. “Although time consuming, it was good to have that interaction with the plants to make sure they were staying healthy.”

Thankfully, the department was able to recoup the monies spent on all supplies used for the annual sale. “Typically, this plant sale is a $30,000 sale. We made just over $7,000 this year,” said Wilson.

Challenges are always present in agriculture, pandemic aside, and although this sale is important to the community, it is paramount that the students have the experience of the sale itself and the challenges that often come with it.

“This enables them to get that real-world experience, [before the real world] by being accountable and providing for others through [this sale],” said Wilson.

More often, many of the students entering the agriculture program at ATU aren’t coming from agriculture backgrounds, which makes the resource of this annual plant sale even more important. With the new year approaching at the time of this writing, the department is exploring options for the 2021 Spring Plant Sale.

“My greenhouse student worker who is graduating in May is coming up with a contingency plan that will be presented to the department head, the dean and on up the chain that explores what we can do this year [for this upcoming sale,]” said Wilson.

No doubt, the next plant sale will look different than in years past, but the lessons of adaptation and resilience will shine throughout the process.

-By Liz Chrisman
for the Tech Action, Spring 2021

Editor’s Note: Unfortunately, there will be no plant sale for spring 2021, but the Agriculture department hopes to return with the Poinsettia Sale in late 2021. Watch for additional information.