Learning The Turf Lessons
When the Chiefs of North Jackson High School hit the gridiron this fall, the perennial contenders for Alabama’s 4-A football championship will have an extra home-field advantage. Not only will R.D. Hicks Stadium be filled with adoring hometown fans, but the Chiefs also will be playing on one of the best-maintained high school athletic fields in Alabama. This lush, green field, however, is not the product of corporate sponsorship or a high-priced maintenance contract. It’s the result of hours of hands-on labor and learning by David Smith’s
agriscience classes.”Turfgrass has become one of the students’ favorite elective classes,” said Smith, who has taught vocational agribusiness in Jackson County for 18 years. “It allows them to be outside. The students are responsible for both the game field and the practice field. They do everything but spray chemicals.”In addition, Smith’s students topdress athletic fields at other schools during the summer to earn money for the agriscience department. And, earlier this year, North Jackson was awarded one of two $75,000 grants by the Alabama State Department of Education to implement a pilot turfgrass education program.Smith said his obsession with sod began shortly after Bridgeport High School and Stevenson High School were merged to form North Jackson in 1988.
“When we consolidated here and they built this new stadium, we started taking over management of the fields (in 1991),” Smith said. “The more I learned about it, the more I thought that turfgrass management would make a great class to teach. The turfgrass business was really booming, and I’m always looking for ways to expose students to job opportunities.”Smith offered a half-semester class in sports field maintenance in 1995. The response was so good, he expanded it to a full semester the following year.Jonathan Keller, a 10th-grader at North Jackson, said he took the class because he is considering a career in turfgrass management.”I was planning on doing something in agriculture when I go to college, so I thought this class would help me with that,” Keller said. “When I graduate, I would like to go to Mississippi State University and study turfgrass management.”Although some of Smith’s students have gone to work for golf courses following high school, others take the class to learn more about lawn care.Ninth-grader Beth Guess said she wants to be a pediatrician when she’s older. But, the budding doctor said the lessons she’s learned in Smith’s class could come in handy when she’s a homeowner.
“I’ve leaned how to operate different types of machines. We’ve learned about different types of grasses and what kinds to grow depending on where you live,” she said. “We’ve touched on entomology, and we learned how to install an irrigation system.”Smith said Keller and Guess are good examples why the turfgrass curriculum appeals to such a wide variety of students.”We are trying to get everything right here on campus so the kids can leave here knowing the basics of sports field maintenance, lawn care and golf course management,” Smith said. “My goal as an ag teacher is to expose students to as many careers in agriscience as possible.”Some North Jackson students, like Keller, already are using the skills they’ve learned in Smith’s class to earn money for themselves and their school. Each summer, Smith and about a half-dozen students topdress (with sand) athletic fields in northeast Alabama and south-central Tennessee. Topdressing, or spreading sand on the fields, promotes the natural healing of dead spots in the turf.”We wanted to buy a topdresser mainly for North Jackson’s fields. But the only way we could afford one was if it paid for itself,” Smith said. “I told our principal, Ken Harding, that I thought we could make money with one, and he said ‘go ahead.'”North Jackson bought a pull-behind topdresser in 1998 for $6,800. By the summer of 2000, the machine had more than paid for itself, and his students were able to put about $3,000 back into the agriscience department budget.”We have worked fields as far south as Locust Fork, Ala., and as far north as Chattanooga, Tenn.,” Smith said. “We make enough money in the summer that we don’t have to do any fund raising.”Smith said from May to August his students will topdress about 25-30 athletic fields. They haul the topdresser, a core aerator and a 25 horsepower New Holland tractor to each job site, and the contracting school supplies the sand and a means to load it. Since 1998, Smith estimates his students have spread about 2,000 tons of sand.Smith said Harding, Jackson County Vocational Director Dana Moore and Jackson County Schools Superintendent Jerry Jeffery all have been supportive of the turfgrass education program at North Jackson. In addition, he credited Angela Guess with the county school system for helping to secure this year’s $75,000 grant.Thanks to that grant, Smith plans to put in a half-acre sod farm and research plots where students can conduct experiments on various irrigation methods, fertilizers and management practices. In addition, Smith and his students recently installed an irrigation system for a three-hole, par-three golf course, which they are building in front of the school. When finished, the course will have seven tee boxes and will allow the school’s golf team to practice 16 different approach shots.More importantly, Smith said the course will give his students hands-on experience in golf course management. Eventually, Smith said the golf course could be opened to the public on a limited basis. He also foresees a time when the school would sell turf from the campus sod farm.Brandon Bell, a junior a North Jackson, said he has enjoyed working on the golf course and has been surprised at how much math and science are involved in turfgrass management. “I like to play golf, so it was interesting building a golf course,” Bell said. “When we were building the irrigation system and mapping off the golf course, we had to do a lot of math. We also learned a lot about the weather, the different nutrients you have to put on the fields and what the pH of the soil should be for specific types of grasses and plants.”Sitting at his desk, in front of a life-size cutout of John Wayne, Smith said he teaches everything from hunter safety and horses to woodworking and welding. Among Alabama agriscience teachers, however, Smith is considered something of a grass guru.In fact, 23 agriscience teachers from as far away as Baldwin County traveled to North Jackson last summer to attend a three-day workshop on turf management. Before leaving, each teacher received a CD-ROM of instructional materials for teaching soil science, environmental issues, lawn care, turf production, golf course management, landscaping and related subjects. The Jackson County Farmers Federation paid for the CDs, which are now being used in agriscience departments across the state.Meanwhile, Smith has developed a network of contacts within the turfgrass industry that is sure to benefit his students. In addition to researchers at Auburn University, the University of Kentucky and Mississippi State University, Smith has sought advice from the manager of the University of Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium. He also is working on internship programs for North Jackson students at local golf courses and at BellSouth Park, home of the Chattanooga Lookouts minor league baseball team.