The goal of the project is twofold, Cliff White of the Orange Hill Soil and Water Conservation District said. One priority is to help the dunes. The other is to pass on knowledge to the students.

PANAMA CITY BEACH — It took just more than an hour for students from Vernon High School’s Future Farmers of America (FFA) to plant 1,400 sea oat plants at the base of a dune by the City Pier.

The sea oats — only about 6 inches high right now — will grow up to 6 feet tall, taking five years to reach maturity. Their root system will help hold the dune in place.

“This is the perfect time to do this,” said John Gilbert, chairman of the Orange Hill Soil and Water Conservation District, gesturing to the beach renourishment project. “The sea oats help protect the dunes and then, if we protect the dunes, the renourishment project — you don’t have to do as many of them.”

A busload of about 30 students came to plant the oats, arranging them in a careful checkerboard pattern to spread the roots out to more effectively lock the sand in place.

“Making sure you get them all lined up is the hardest part,” said student Anna Hogue, who was coming back for a second year of planting. “I like plant stuff, though. It’s fun.”

The project is organized by John McMurray of Three River Resource Conservation & Development Council, who has been planting sea oats locally for 12 years by himself and with students at various sites in Bay County.

“He’s planted millions,” Gilbert said.

“Well, at least thousands,” McMurray responded.

Sea oats are a plant that needs a little help, McMurray said.

“Mother Nature is selfish about sea oats,” he said, explaining that some years they produce a lot of seeds but other years they produce very few. “It’s been many years since we’ve had a hurricane, but the next year after a hurricane there will be more sea oats out there than you ever need. She can’t grow it right.”

Which is why McMurray and the FFA students step in to help.

The goal of the project is twofold, Cliff White of the Orange Hill Soil and Water Conservation District said. One priority is to help the dunes. The other is to pass on knowledge to the students.

“They are learning about the importance of protecting the environment, of doing all this ecological work,” White said. “The kids are special. They are so appreciative of being out here.”

McMurray remembers, with great pride, the time one of the girls scolded a man for laying his blanket on top of a dune.

“We want them to take hold of this,” he said.

The event was sponsored by Three Rivers. If all goes as planned, students will come back in the fall to harvest sea oat seeds from other plants that were planted in past years to grow new seedlings.