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Pi Alpha Xi Finds Success with Online Plant Sale

A row of potted plants. The pots have faces with mustaches.

For the past 38 years, Pi Alpha Xi, an honorary fraternity in the Department of Horticultural Sciences, has hosted two annual plant sales. Proceeds from these sales help fund scholarships, student travel grants, community programs related to horticulture and grounds upkeep at the North Carolina Museum of Art — where the sale is traditionally located.

For student organizers like Zohara Scott and Luke Owen, both seniors majoring in horticultural sciences, the plant sales are an opportunity for them to apply what they’ve learned in class, essentially becoming plant experts to customers.

“Generally, it involves us being out there and supplying customers with plant information and helping them understand how plants can be beneficial,” said Scott.

Folks attend Pi Alpha Xi’s 2018 fall plant sale at the North Carolina Museum of Art.

But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the spring sale was cancelled. 

“With everything happening, it became clear we weren’t going to be able to do our spring sale,” Owen said. “With classes being cancelled, it became really difficult. None of us were really prepared, but we knew we wanted to do something in the fall, if possible.” 

And they did, with the help of N.C. Cooperative Extension agent Debbie Roos. After sitting in a few virtual workshops with Roos, the group created and launched a Square Store.

“In past plant sales, we actually used the Square Store system to do transactions but that was about it,” Scott said. This time they actually had to figure out how to get all of the plants and information onto a website.

“We were really able to utilize Extension’s tools,” Owen said. The plant toolbox tool was especially handy. “They have QR codes that are automatically generated for each plant, allowing our customers to get even more detailed information about the plants that they’ve purchased.”

And speaking of plants, there are a variety to choose from, including shrubs, trees, flowering perennials, ferns to specialty plants like pumpkins and annuals. The group sold about 200 plants during the fall sale.

Succulent plants for sale during Pi Alpha Xi’s 2018 fall plant sale.

“A good portion of the profits goes to charitable organizations. Usually one organization gets picked every semester. They apply to get the money and we then donate it to them. Last year’s fall plant sale profits were donated to Sankofa Farms,” Scott said.

Sankofa Farms, which is located in Efland, North Carolina, seeks to assist in changing the food intake habits of those living in and affected by food deserts — an area where it might be difficult to buy affordable or good-quality fresh food. Owner Kamal Bell, a doctoral student in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and an honorary member of Pi Alpha Xi, says the fraternity has been a great resource for his organization.

“We’ve gotten a grant from them [Pi Alpha Xi] for two years, and it’s helped us expand educational opportunities,” Bell said. The farm has been able to buy caterpillar tunnels, which Bell describes as a more flexible option than greenhouses. 

“Pi Alpha Xi has been really helpful. …I’m really close with their advisor Elisabeth Meyer. She and the students have been a big help with ideas,” Bell said.

And that’s always been the mission, Owen said. “You have people in mind, like Kamal Bell of Sankofa Farms, who you’re helping and doing this for. It makes it all worth it; even if the process is different, the purpose remains the same.”

For faculty advisors Chris Gunter and Elisabeth Meyer, they could not be more proud of the group’s hard work and dedication to putting on a successful and profitable event.

“This required a complete rethinking of the sale, from designing a whole new online storefront, learning about web marketing, the logistics of plant deliveries to a new location, staging plants for pickup by customers in a safe way, and rapidly handling on-the-fly challenges from customers. This group of student officers, including Luke and Zohara, showed excellent leadership and poise in adapting to these challenges,” Gunter said.

Meyer’s sentiments are the same.

“Luke did an excellent job supporting his officer team and definitely embodies what it means to be a servant leader,” Meyers said. “Zohara’s knowledge of plants is exceptional, and she showed great drive and commitment to making the sale be a quality experience for everyone. She takes personal responsibility for making any endeavor that she’s involved in the best it can possibly be.”

Although folks will have to wait until April 9 for the next plant sale, people can still donate on the website