Growing New Skills

Tractor purchased through WEC partnership benefits CHS students

Michael Spivey, a Cottonwood High School student, drives a John Deere tractor purchased for the school with a Wiregrass Electric Cooperative grant.

Nathan Butler’s goal each workday is to sow seeds of inspiration, and the Cottonwood High School (CHS) agriscience teacher implements a well-rounded approach to achieve that goal.

“What I try to do is to introduce every one of my students to all aspects of agriculture,” he says. “For instance, I try to introduce them to some horticulture, some livestock, some woodworking, and some welding. I give them a wide variety of things, to see what areas might interest them. Not everyone is going to want to work with plants, but not all of them are going to want to weld, either.”

Butler and the CHS chapter of the National FFA Organization he leads recently received a new tool to help students discover their path in life and to develop crucial skills. Through a $33,000 donation from Wiregrass Electric Cooperative (WEC) and the Wiregrass Resource Conservation and Development Council, the FFA chapter purchased a new John Deere tractor to help students complete several farming and wildlife management tasks.

“We at Wiregrass Electric Cooperative are proud to bolster education and workforce development with this $8,000 Operation Round Up grant,” says WEC Chief Operating Officer Brad Kimbro. “The numerous agriscience-related classes and projects teach the next generation valuable skills that can translate into rewarding careers for both the student and our area.”

“We have so many kids today that have no intentions of going on to the next level of education that can be very productive and make a great living in many fields,” adds state Rep. Paul Lee, who partnered with Wiregrass RC&D to provide the additional $25,000 of the donation. “When we see what interests them through the agribusiness program at Cottonwood, it gives them the opportunity to expand that into a career they like. This creates a big economic impact for Houston County and the tri-state area.”

A Holistic Approach

Teacher may be his title at CHS, but Butler also views himself as a workforce developer. The Houston County Schools system, which supports Cottonwood High School, operates a strong workforce development institution called the Houston County Career Academy. Students from all of the system’s high schools travel to the HCCA campus in Dothan to learn skills in a variety of careers, ranging from automotive services to medical training to computer programming.

Cottonwood High School agriscience teacher Nathan Butler will use this tractor to help students with farming and wildlife management projects near the school.

“I try to gauge the students’ interest in different activities to determine what they want to do when they get out of school,” Butler says. “If it’s something at the career academy that can help them there, I want to send them and get them trained. Being in career tech, I can help funnel some of those kids into careers like heating and cooling, fish and wildlife, and horticulture.”

Butler’s efforts manifest themselves in many ways. He leads welding and other construction and maintenance classes in a workshop at the school. His students and FFA members also oversee numerous gardens, livestock pastures, and wildlife management areas on about 25 acres on and near school property.

“We grow vegetables and produce, and we give those vegetables and produce to our community,” Butler says. “The kids help plant. They help raise vegetables. We also want to use the tractor to move hay bales and move around some livestock equipment. We’ll also use this equipment to disc land, manage food plots and manage wildlife areas.”

He also plans to use the tractor in farm safety classes.

Butler says students respond well to the variety of lessons learned through the CHS agriscience programs. “I get a lot of positive reactions from them. The kids like it because we’re not doing the same thing every day. They never really know what we’re doing next. I try to mix it up. It keeps their attention better. We don’t stay on one thing for six weeks.”

Impressed by Community

WEC provided the $8,000 grant through its Operation Round Up Charitable Foundation, which relies on WEC members’ contributions. About 85% of WEC’s membership voluntarily rounds their monthly power bills to the next highest dollar, generating about $120,000 per year.

In turn, the Operation Round Up board uses the money to fund more than 20 scholarships and dozens of grants each year. This grant is the second significant one awarded to Cottonwood’s FFA chapter, following a $6,000 gift a few years ago that paid for fencing and equipment.

Officials from WEC, the Wiregrass Resource Conservation and Development Council and state Rep. Paul Lee present a check for $8,000 to Cottonwood High School students and faculty.

Sarah Juarez, FFA president at CHS, says she felt humbled by the partnerships that led to the tractor purchase and the continuation of her school’s programs.

“I really think this donation shows the goodness of our community,” she says. “FFA is not always about agriculture. Agriculture is a big aspect of it because that’s what we use to show people that they can be a leader. All of these projects that we’re learning teach good communication skills, good leadership skills — learning how to live life.”

Kimbro says he is appreciative to WEC members for making this grant possible.

“The high participation rate from our members reveals their heart, which is to serve others well,” he says. “We at WEC embrace this, and we believe supporting education and workforce development efforts represent our membership’s desires.”