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FFA students purchase Renville greenhouse business as means of learning the intricacies of running a business

RENVILLE -- The school of hard knocks is a beautiful place on the prairie, bursting with the colors of newly flowered plants and the greenery that will soon fill gardens and yards from Danube to Sacred Heart.

Its students are there too.

They own it.

"I want them to get the full effect of a business,'' said Darrel Refsland, agriculture teacher and FFA adviser for the Renville County West Schools.

The school district's FFA chapter is purchasing the 212 Garden Center located a short distance west of Renville under a lease-to-own agreement.

The popular greenhouse is now Refsland's off-campus classroom for the kind of learning that cannot be duplicated in the comfort of school desks.

Refsland wants students in the school's FFA chapter to learn all about what it really takes to run a business: The students are experiencing the grit and challenge of tending to the plants, keeping customers happy and balancing the books.

Helping plant 14,000 small "plugs'' that are now the flowers and vegetables thriving in the greenhouse was not exactly chapter member Mitch Agre's idea of a fun time.

"Not at all,'' he said.

But now the plants are vibrant shades of green, the flowers are blooming, and the students are discovering that hands-on learning can be lots of fun too. "It's really fun to be in here,'' said Katherine Schemel, one of the FFA students.

The students will be hosting the grand opening for their business this Saturday with specials and a "kids' day'' celebration.

The greenhouse alongside U.S. Highway 212 has been operated by Brenda and Paul Holm for 12 years. Brenda Holm is a science instructor with the RCW Schools. Refsland said the Holms were thinking of selling the business and asked if the FFA chapter might be interested.

There was a lot of serious debate among the chapter members, said Refsland. Cory Eischens, a sophomore with the chapter, said he was among those who initially voted no. "Because I knew I would be out here all the time,'' he said.

Students in the 50-member chapter will be rotating their assignments at the greenhouse. All of the juniors and seniors will devote at least one full day to the greenhouse during the spring season. Everyone is expected to pitch in as help is needed.

The FFA chapter was fortunate in that one year ago the Renville Shipping Association donated $5,000 to the chapter for leadership activities. The funds were used to purchase this year's inventory and get the business off the ground, Refsland said.

Today, Refsland estimates that the greenhouse holds anywhere from $20,000 to $25,000 worth of inventory. The chapter will be relying on the revenues from sales to purchase the business, and to replenish the leadership account.

Students will be paid for their labor, just like a real business, said Refsland.

The new owners aim to turn a profit, of course. The students hope the greenhouse can replace the sponsorship of pedal pull contests as a fundraiser for the chapter.

The Holms are available on-site and have been extremely helpful, Refsland said. The students are following the Holms' advice and using the same vendors and offering the same array of flowers and vegetables for customers.

Now, what they need most of all is the spring weather that will bring the green thumbs in the region to their doors. "As long as the customers show up, I guess we'll be OK,'' said Refsland.

He is confident that no matter what the balance sheet eventually shows, the project will provide students with tremendous learning opportunities. He also hopes that the experience will show the young people that they can make their own futures by staying in the area and starting their own businesses.

He is also looking for opportunities to involve students beyond those in the FFA chapter. Students in his welding class, for example, are making the metal hooks used for hanging flower baskets.

If all goes as hoped, Refsland said their goal is to move the greenhouse into Renville later this summer. He wants to place it closer to the school and more accessible for students.

The RCW FFA 212 Garden Center is open seven days a week. Hours are 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday; and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. It can be reached at 320-212-1511.