CCTS Turfgrass team wins second place in statewide FAA competition

Students of the Camden County Technical School were quizzed on horticulture knowledge at the Rutgers event in November.

Vice president Stephen Schaff, president Kaitlyn Parkhill and secretary Briana Ricks of Camden County Technical School’s FFA Turfgrass Team examine their blooming poinsettia plants in a one of the CCTS greenhouses.

Nestled behind Berlin-Cross Keys Road, two greenhouses overlook a lush oasis.

The topography, occupied with small waterfalls, bridges and a tiki hut, can almost go unnoticed on the Camden County Technical Schools campus in Sicklerville.

But, for landscape architecture students, the two-acre sight serves as a canvas for creativity and experimentation.

The experience gained in this garden, which won two Pennsylvania Horticultural Society awards, led the CCTS Turfgrass team to clinch second place at the Turfgrass Competition — a career development event through the New Jersey FFA, previously known as the Future Farmers of America.

The participants included four members of the CCTS’ career program, which teaches students about horticulture skills such as hardscaping, pond construction, water features, irrigation systems and turf maintenance.

“Doing (turfgrass management) in the classroom is totally different from doing it there,” said senior Kaitlyn Parkhill, president of the FFA turfgrass team.

The Camden Tech East FAA Chapter competed among nine other schools across the state in mid-November at Rutgers University, earning 605.5 points. Last year, the team took third place.

“It just felt good that we were able to improve our spot from last year,” said sophomore Stephen Schaff, vice president of the FFA turfgrass team.

The competition encompassed comprehension-based components, including memorizing and identifying more than 25 agriculture concepts, including insects, pesticides, diseases, turf species, physical disorders and weeds. One minute was given to identify each article.

The other phases required participants to handle equipment calibration, practices to withstand stress conditions and pesticide level evaluations.

“It just shows you — it’s not just what people think of that ‘you’re just planting a plant.’ It adds a bigger factor to it. It’s a lot harder than you think,” Parkhill said.

Not only did the competition require extensive science-based understanding, such as determining chemical PH levels, but it also entailed knowledge about state Department of Environmental Protection regulations, determining which fertilizers can lawfully be used.

The cumulative score was based on the top three teammates’ individual earnings. Parkhill scored 194, Schaff scored 252, FAA turfgrass secretary Briana Ricks scored 158.5 and freshman Gabriel Jones scored 128.5.

The teammates say the competition presented the most challenges on individual levels.

“Looking at the laws and looking at what gas you have to put in the tractors — it was all new to me,” Ricks said. “(The competition) really was an eye-opener.”

Secretary Briana Ricks, president Kaitlyn Parkhill and vice president Stephen Schaff of Camden County Technical School’s FFA Turfgrass Team examine a fish pond in a one of the CCTS greenhouses.

The teammates attribute their success to their instructor, Brian Burns, and the overall CCTS career program, which allows the students to take two-hour classes each day surrounding horticulture elements.

“The biggest goal of our school here is to make them aware of these career opportunities and hopefully something will click that they like,” said Suzanne Golt, the CCTS admissions and development officer.

Although the tournament brought out their ambitious side, as the team competes in roughly five events each year, the students say working with plants is therapeutic amid the daily hustle of high school.

“When you’re around nature and tranquility, it helps you with your academics, because then, you’re more chill,” Parkhill said.

Holiday seasons are especially rewarding, because the students spend time making and selling floral arrangements, which funds the nonprofit landscape architecture program. Often, they’ll create prom or sympathy bouquets. Currently, the greenhouses are populated with poinsettias.

“You go down on campus, and it’s so busy and bustling. And here, we’re just in our own area,” Schaff said. “It’s so peaceful to be away from the campus.”