“I don’t expect anybody to be happy about the program being archived,” said Matt Heimburg, dean of arts, sciences and natural resources at HCC. “I’m looking for the ideas or opportunities that are out there so that we can find a way to bring it back [but] when you have a classroom that has somewhere between two and six students in it, that’s not really a sign of a successful program.”
“Archiving” is the word HCC has been using to describe the general phasing out of the program.
“One of the other terms that’s used is mothballing. It’s still there, all we have to do is tell the system we want to bring this program back and we can,” Heimburg said. “This process that we’re going through right now, archiving the program, is going to be basically a big reset button, to see what direction we may go in the future.”
Declining enrollment is a major factor; as Heimburg alluded, the smallest class in the program right now consists of just two students.
“When I started, I think we had upwards, on average, of about 20 people or so per class,” said George Thomas.
Originally trained as an electrical engineer, Thomas thought he’d try something different and joined the community college in 1997 as a horticulture technology instructor after studying at the University of Georgia and University of Nebraska.
“They’re pretty much polar opposites, but it is science-based, so it is similar in some ways,” said Thomas, who will retire this week. “I love engineering, but I love working outdoors, working with my hands.”
For 21 years, Thomas taught HCC horticulture students to do just that.
“This is very hands-on. At a university it’s mostly theory. When I went to Georgia I had a vegetable class and I never saw a vegetable,” he said. “We just learned about them. Here you actually see them grow, then you harvest them.”
HCC was established in the mid-1960s; the horticulture program, in the mid-1970s. Although it’s seen some changes over that time, there are currently four classes offered in the fall, and four in the spring that culminate in two certificates and a diploma.
“Propagation, pest management, landscape management, botany, soil science, things like that,” Thomas said. “It’s pretty diverse.”
The coursework prepares graduates to work in a variety of fields.
“Our graduates can go anywhere, but most of them focus on landscaping,” Thomas said. “We have people working in greenhouses and nurseries, a lot of our graduates are and have been working at places like the Biltmore. That’s their big interest, horticultural landscaping.”
The job market for people with a degree or diploma in horticulture, however, offers little reward for the credentials, according to Heimburg.
“Part of what we’re looking to do for students who graduate from our programs is to make sure that their quality of life improves, that their wages improve, that they can get a job that’s going to help them and their families prosper,” he said. “[In horticulture] those jobs — while they’re out there — they’re few and far between for many students.”
Heimburg said that back when horticulture was a two-year degree program a few years ago, an advisory board of alumni and local business owners confirmed that to be the case.
Perhaps indicative of that realization, the program saw just one student enroll in the spring 2018 semester, before the decision to archive the program was finalized.
“Anyone that’s in the pipeline will have an opportunity to finish,” Heimberg said, adding that another full-time faculty member will teach the horticulture classes in light of Thomas’ retirement. “The last actual class will be in spring 2019.”
Heimberg said he was optimistic that HCC would start to evaluate both short-term and long-term prospects for the program as soon as this summer.
One possible long-term outcome of the archiving process is that the program germinates as something related but different, and more relevant to the 21st century economy than landscaping — something that would make more of a difference in the lives of students and their families.
“Do we want to concentrate more on sustainable agriculture, or on agribusiness? There are those opportunities in the region around us,” Heimberg said. “As the region has more of a foodie scene and a farm-to table-focus, there could even be entrepreneurship opportunities there.”
Other regional opportunities include two distinct tracks that would have been hard to imagine when Thomas first joined HCC; Blue Ridge Community College offers brewing technology coursework, and the recent industrial hemp cultivation pilot program has left a huge knowledge gap for cultivators of this once-banned crop.
“That’s a pretty radical shift,” Heimberg said of any major modifications to the horticulture program. “That takes resources, and community colleges don’t necessarily get a lot of funds. Figuring out the best way to allocate the amount of funding we do receive is important, so if we bring this program back it’s going to be something valuable to students. That’s where you’re going to get enrollment.”
Indeed, as the program winds down, there’s no guarantee it will ever come back in any form, but in the short term, there are no immediate plans to tear down the campus greenhouses, the barn-like garage or the lab and classroom combo.
In fact, they’re still being utilized and could end up seeing more traffic as the program ends by summer 2019; currently, a career and college readiness program uses the space, and continuing education classes could begin in the interim as well.
“I have people who take one class,” Thomas said. “I had a 70-some year-old woman take a propagation class a couple years ago. I had an 80-year-old man in class. It’s also for enjoyment, for personal enrichment.”
Heimburg, too, recognized the value such offerings could have for the community — if not the job market.
“You have retirees, people who want to grow their gardens and want to make them beautiful,” he said. “Instead of having them come into a curriculum program that’s going to last 16 weeks, we can do a continuing education class that’s shorter and costs less.”
Of all the benefits associated with HCC’s horticulture program, the expansive community outreach will likely be noticed first.
“This is a community college so we’re within the community,” Thomas said. “I think that’s an important aspect of our program. We’ve done and continue to do a lot of things like working with Habitat for Humanity installing landscape plants. We just got through doing some work with Folkmoot, and the Town of Waynesville. We did a butterfly pollinator garden at the recreation center.”
The program’s annual plant sale will also wither, and along with it, the surplus that ended up as donations.
“Anything we don’t need that we have left over, we don’t dump it,” Thomas said. “We want to send it to a good home so we donate it. We donate to the Haywood Gleaners, to a lot of our elementary schools so they can have a garden — the Town of Canton, they have a garden at the library over there so we donated a lot of plants to them — we landscaped the Shook House, which is the oldest house in the county, many, many years ago.”
The greenhouse has also seen many a Girl Scout, Boy Scout or Pre-K student come through on tours designed to instill a lifelong love of learning about the natural world. When those tours will again become commonplace remains uncertain.