FFA programs survive despite disruption

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By Craig W. Anderson


San Joaquin County’s high school FFA programs remain diversified and popular despite coming off a difficult end to the school year given the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the loss of spring schooling, FFA students know that the county’s agriculture still has great job and career potential. Agriculture was declared an essential industry and is valued at $2.7 billion by the agricultural commissioner’s 2018 Crop Report.

The 14 schools that responded to the San Joaquin Farm Bureau News’ request for information were preparing as best they could for the beginning of the fall 2020 school year. Looking back at their pre-pandemic accomplishments, the news was generally positive.


Bear Creek High School, Stockton (Lodi USD)

The Bear Creek High School ag/FFA program numbers 251 students instructed by Suzanne Hillan, Jennifer Garrett and Brieana Demelo (hired for the 2020-2021 school year).

“Unfortunately, with our school year cut short, we were unable to finish some of our larger shop projects, but they will be waiting for the students when we return,” said Suzanne Hillan. “Our administrators have given us a lot of support throughout the year and I’m sure this will continue when regular classes begin.”

She also said, “We are slowly building up our advisory committee” from parent and community supporters of the program.

Despite the drastically shortened school year, Hillan reported significant activity involving the ag/FFA department, including college aligned courses.

Bear Creek has a series of 15 specific high school course requirements that establishes eligibility to enter a California State University or University of California school. The student must receive a C or better grade to be eligible.

“Our A-G and our horticulture class is articulated with Delta College and our Floral Design class is articulated with Modesto Junior College,” Hillan said. “We’re working on getting our mechanics/welding classes articulated as well.”

“The program has been approved for a grant to provide a new farm that will include a livestock barn, poultry barn and a new greenhouse,” she said. “Once we’re able to, we will plant vines and trees. We’re extremely excited about this opportunity for our students.”

However, she said, “Everything is on hold because of COVID, so we’re hoping we will be able to pick-up this project soon!”

And excitement is building for the return of “our animal science class next year and our offering welding for the first time.” Course pathways have been established for Ag Mechanics 101, Agriscience 102 and Ornamental Horticulture 105.

The program’s woodshop has installed a planer, jointer and band saw; the metal shop has benefited likewise with a chop saw, portable welding unit, exhaust fan for the plasma table and the arrival of the new band saw is eagerly anticipated.

“We have a school farm that we make work,” Hillan said. “But with the new grant, our students will have more opportunities to raise animals.” Hillan added that “right now we share classrooms and shops.”

Fundraising continues to augment the grant and “we had our annual sausage Drive-Through BBQ in the fall” before the shut-down. “We received an Ag Incentive Grant and CTIG [Career Technical Incentive Grant] as well,” Hillan said.

FFA accomplishments had just started and included Julia Ford, the school’s first State FFA degree recipient and Bear Creek’s FFA president and outstanding floral student; Mia Suplividia, outstanding flora student; Michael Valdez and Ivan Fernandez, outstanding mechanics students and part of the welding team; Jesse Alanzo, outstanding woodshop student; and Ava Thomas and Kaylynn Vanbunma, outstanding agriscience students.

“Our welding team was only able to attend one competition at Delta College before everything closed,” Hillan said. “And our pest management team was unable to compete when Field Days were canceled.”

“Unfortunately, like all the other schools, we were unable to compete at field days, go to state convention or have our banquet. Luckily we had the AgFest auction, so our animal kids were able to still show/sell,” Hillan said. “Not seeing our students and not being able to finish up our agriscience projects, dissections and large shop projects has been sad.”

She said, “We’re waiting to see what our [school] district decides for next year so we are hoping to keep our numbers and be able to get back to our new ‘normal’.”


East Union High School, Manteca

East Union’s administration “has been supportive during the ag department remodel to benefit the 650 students in the ag program,” said agriculture instructor John Hopper. His colleagues are: Kristen Buck, Tristyn Silva and Lucas Schultz.

The college-aligned courses available include Sustainable ag biology, ag chemistry, ag science, floral design, ag Earth and environmental science, and ag leadership. “A drafting class was added this year due to the lack of the wood shop that was being remodeled,” Hopper said. “And we have all new equipment for the metal and wood shops.”

The wood shop was remodeled, and a floral room, science room and new metal shop and classrooms built; course pathways include ag wood, ag mechanics, ornamental horticulture and ag science.

Hopper said about COVID’s affect: “It has been very difficult to have hands-on classes during this time. Mrs. Silva has been working with floral students to do floral arrangements at home during this time. A new challenge learning how to virtually teach hands-on classes.”

“Our major project during this shortened school year was the successful Adopt a Family for Christmas,” Hopper said, adding that the fundraising projects included Grafted Fruit Tree Fundraiser, Fagundes BBQ, Floral Subscriptions, Ag Mechanics Projects and Ag Wood Projects.

The FFA accomplishments of East Union were many: Open and Closing Public Speaking: Greenhand Team Gold; Open Team one and two both received Gold; Officer Team, Gold; Aiden Berchtold, Outstanding Vice President; Kaetlin Bogle, Outstanding President; and Lilly Leonardo, Outstanding Reporter.

Public Speaking contest: Job Interview: Katelin Bean, Second Sectional Contest, Fifth Central Regional FFA Contest; Maris Prado, Fifth Sectional Contest.

CO-OP team of Katelin Bean, Taylor Campbell, Alison Berchtold, Maris Prado and Loraina Lyle: Fourth place Delta al Sectional Contest; Maris Prado, Second High Individual.

Impromptu Contest: Alissa Debarros, Third Place Sectional Contest; California State FFA Degree Receipts: Loraina Lyle, Allison Berchtold, Charlie LaRue, Madison Womack and Anthony Loprieato; American Degree: Samantha Loprieato.

“Spring teams were cut short due to the cancellation of class,” said Hopper. “Fall teams were very competitive.”

AgFest results: Replacement Heifers: Charlie LaRue, Champion FFA Heifer, Reserve Supreme Heifer; Market Pigs: Katelin Bean, Reserve FFA Champion, Champion FFA Showmanship Winner; Madison Womack, Champion FFA Duroc; Showmanship Essay Contest: Katelin Bean, Champion Essay Showmanship Winner; Kaetlin Bogle, Third Place 9-10th Grade Division. “We had over 30 projects for AgFest.”

“Our students have high expectations set by the ag instructors and they strive to meet the expectations,” Hopper said. “The ag department continually receives strong parent and community support.”

The icing on the FFA competitive cake was the program receiving the California FFA Superior Chapter Award and a National Chapter Award.


Escalon High School

The 300 students in Escalon High School’s ag/FFA program are taught by department head Gypsy Stark, Isabella Leventini (ag sciences) and Kenny Saephan (agriculture mechanics and welding).

“We’ve just finished constructing our new greenhouse on the existing school farm,” Leventini said. “We’ll be installing irrigation in the near future so it will be ready to use when we return to school. Mr. Saephan is currently working at updating the shop to current industry standards.”

Escalon’s administration is supportive in providing subs and paying for professional development opportunities, Leventini said. “Our principal also does a great job at supporting us by sitting in on our officer interviews and giving us feedback.”

She said he’s also done his best to be open and communicate with staff, especially in regards to projects, visits, scheduling faculty clean outs and other things. “Our principal has also given the department the go-ahead to apply for grants such as Perkins and CTEIG to improve our program and provide increased opportunities for our students.”

Currently, the sole college-aligned course is animal science, taught by Stark and accredited specifically to Modesto Junior College. “We are working on adding more transfer agreements with our ag mechanics pathway and the agriscience pathway,” Leventini said.

The staff and school administration are currently working to update and build new facilities. A greenhouse was recently built on the school farm and Stark’s ornamental horticulture class has been working to update the campus garden box area to include fresh vegetable gardens and a rose garden in the fall.

Stark began offering the ornamental horticulture class again and hopes to be able to expand that course with the use of the new greenhouse. “We also have an agriculture leadership course that focuses on helping our students develop into effective student leaders, as well as helping plan every FFA event that happens at our chapter level,” Leventini said.

Over the past year, Escalon has acquired new welders, a brand new iron worker, a new F350 pickup truck, a new van, several Reality Works animal models, various lab equipment and a chicken incubator.

Escalon holds four to five fundraisers annually, including the “You’ve Been Farmed” event, cookie dough sales, the Rubber Duck Race, a tri tip BBQ drive-thru and advertisement sales.

“We are updating the existing school farm because the new farm is still in the planning stage,” Leventini said. “PG&E is working toward adding power and we’re working to secure funding to pay for the structure.” When complete, the building will house cattle, swine, sheep, goats and poultry. “It will be used for student projects as well as educational opportunities for students in the classroom to see agriculture on a first hand basis.”

“Our department is very proud of how active our students are in every facet of the FFA program,” said Leventini. “This year we had 48 students participate at the Opening and Closing Ceremonies contest in September.”

Two students earned their American Degree, eight earned the State Degree; the food Science Team placed first in the state at the UC Davis Field Day; Alayna Azevedo was elected as the Central Region Secretary. Because of the pandemic, many of Escalon’s Career Development Teams were not able to participate in the normal field day. The agronomy and vegetable judging teams did well and the students who competed in the speaking contests performed well at the sectional level and moved on to the regional level.

AgFest competitors garnered five championships and a second place.

“We have many outstanding students in the Escalon FFA,” Leventini said. “One student in particular stands out: Alayna Azevdeo, a junior who’s served as the Escalon FFA Chapter Secretary and as the Delta-Cal Sectional Secretary. She’s been a member of the Escalon FFA Livestock Judging team since her freshman year. Alayna is the type of student who strives for excellence and encourages peers to do the same. She recently received the Star Junior Award at the Escalon High School FFA banquet. We’re very proud of her.”

Escalon currently offers pathways in ag mechanics, plant science, animal science and agriscience.

“We are very lucky to have such strong community support,” Leventini said. “We also have a tremendous Ag Boosters club that helps us pay for transportation, registration fees and more. They donate countless hours of their time and also provide several scholarships to outstanding seniors.”

Escalon has applied for several grants over the past two years and received one that allowed the purchase of major items and a Perkins Grant to purchase updated shop equipment.

The pandemic caused the cancellation of Escalon’s biggest recruitment event, Ag Day, which caused a decline in student involvement because many spring events were canceled. “We predict fundraising next year will be limited due to the economic downturn and a massive budget deficit throughout California will affect our ability to purchase supplies for our classrooms,” Leventini said.

“We are most concerned with what our classrooms will look like next year,” she said. “We’re also worried we won’t be able to fund our program at full capacity and that will have a negative impact on students.”


Lathrop High School

Lathrop High School has 240 students in its ag program and Danelle Ariaz and Ben Garret are the instructors who appreciate the administration’s support.

“We do have really good support from our Principal Greg Leland, who helps us travel by approving paperwork or helping us figure a way to get there,” Ariaz said.

“Many courses are A-G approved, including floral, ag science and animal science,” Ariaz said. “And other courses can be considered special or unique are advanced floral, where students work on orders coming in for weddings or the Police Ball. They never know what events they’ll be working on next.”

Major activities during the truncated school year included weddings, a floral subscription service and flowers for the elderly. “We did a flower delivery this year to two assisted living homes in Lathrop,” Ariaz said. “We delivered more than 300 flower arrangements and cards to the residents. It was amazing to see so many elderly happy. Many times they’re left behind and we wanted to let them know that we were thinking of them. The kids really enjoyed the process and next year we hope to do it again.”

The animal science and ag science classes were able to take the bus to the farm regularly where the students could experience hands-on classes with the animals and practice what they learned in class.

Lathrop’s school farm is “awesome,” Ariaz said. “We pulled out the old almond trees and we’re going to replant with the same variety so we’ll have all one variety. We have four co-ops on the farm: sheep, goats, bees and rabbits. It gives the kids a way to participate in some larger animal projects without having to own them.” She said many State and American degrees have been produced on the co-ops.

Ariaz said Lesie Barraza and Daniel Gavino journeyed to Indianapolis to receive their American Degree.

“Our main challenge this year is going to be budget,” Ariaz said. “Last we heard Ag Incentive Grants would only be funded at 36%, which is pretty hard to run a program.” She said most of the money will pay the students way to be part of the national FFA with almost no money left for supplies. “So this year will be very lean but I know if we’re resourceful, we will make it.”

Fundraising may help that cause. Normally the department hosts two drive-through dinners but this year only one was possible due to COVID-19. The department would have hosted a flora contest for the region and that didn’t happen because of the pandemic. “The upcoming year with all that happened last year, including budget cuts, I do believe will be very tight. Normally at this point we’re pretty well set up for the start of the school year, but due to the cancellation, we’re now behind.”

Gone is a second blood drive that would have generated scholarships for seniors, Ariaz said. “This year we were only able to give one scholarship for a lot less than usual. This year’s been a roller-coaster but we’re doing the best we can.”


Linden High School

The 329 students in Linden’s ag program represent almost half of the student body and the instructors responsible for teaching that group are Chris Lemos, Natalie Stevano and Jana Colombini.

“This year we had a new principal, Lori Ruegsegger, who replaced our retiring principal and former ag teacher Richard Schmidig,” explained Chris Lemos. “Mrs. Ruegsegger has demonstrated an understanding of the importance of agriculture education and is supportive of the teachers and our ideas as we look to expand and improve our program.”

A number of classes are articulated with local community colleges including agriculture welding, floral design and ornamental horticulture.

Lemos said, “This was a planning year. We got approval from administration to expand our school farm area and build an animal unit which will house small and medium animals. This will allow students who live in town and underprivileged students who don’t have a place to raise an animal, the opportunity to show animal projects at AgFest.”

Acquiring materials for the project began with 37 pallets of cinder block delivered to the ag department and Lemos said breaking ground will begin this summer.

Adding gravitas to the new animal unit is instructor Colombini’s continuing to teach the new veterinary science/animal anatomy class.

New equipment acquired included a CO2 laser and the students have been using it to make a variety of projects and even make money for them through SAE projects and department by doing custom engraving work.

“We’re in the process of acquiring a cold saw for the metal shop, a panel saw for the woodshop, and we’ve applied for a grant to get a skid steer or a tractor with a loader as part of the school farm expansion,” Lemos said.

Linden had “some of our standard annual fundraisers including our spaghetti feed made possible by the generous support of the Linden Lions Club. We also sold poinsettias in December and hosted a donkey basketball game during National FFA week where Linden FFA played the Linden-Peters Fire Department,” said Lemos. “We did get cut short this year so we weren’t able to do some of our major fundraisers we’re used to, such as the Cherry Festival.”

Linden’s program found success in a number of FFA accomplishments including earning one American Degree and five State Degrees; two students moved on to the regional level in public speaking contests and Linden had the high individual on the Co-op test and Linden’s team took first place at the sectional level and moved on to compete at the virtual FFA State Finals.

“Our students did well at this year’s virtual AgFest,” Lemos said: John Lucostic won Best of Show for agriculture mechanics projects; Paul Avansino had FFA Reserve Champion all other breed market hog; Lacy Sarale had the Reserve Champion FFA dairy replacement heifer; Beau Daluz had the Reserve Supreme market beef and champion FFA market beef; Daniela Alvarez won outstanding FFA floral exhibitor and Best of Division for cut flowers as well as winning novice goat showmanship; and Nick Vana was the outstanding FFA horticulture exhibitor.

“We currently have active pathways in agriscience, floral, agribusiness and agriculture mechanics,” Lemos said.

Community support led to establishing an Ag Boosters Club. “It got up and running just as everything was starting to shut down but will play a central role in the funding and operation of our chapter in years to come.”

Linden benefited from a few grants this year, according to Lemos: an Agriculture Incentive Grant, “which is one of our major ongoing funding sources”; a federal Perkins Grant paid for a new laser machine; and “unexpectedly some money from the Career Technical Education Incentive Grant which we put toward our school farm expansion.”

COVID-19 created a number of challenges, starting with the classroom. “We had to adapt our curriculum for distance learning … which was especially challenging as many of our classes are hands-on.” Dissecting animals stopped dead; the ag mechanics shop is, Lemos said, “full of unfinished projects.” Also, there were low participation rates in distance learning because “student engagement is challenging when hands-on students are forced to work exclusively out of books,” he said.

The pandemic also impacted Linden’s Supervised Agricultural Experience (SAE) projects: the state FFA convention was canceled; FFA officer elections had to be virtual and “Mrs. Colombini did a great job coming up with alternative activities for the students but it’s still not the same as in-person interactions,” Lemos said.

AgFest projects were already well underway, so this one became a virtual show where students had to show their animals by video and still exhibits shown via pictures and portfolios. “Most of our students did an outstanding job with a virtual show but once again it was not the same experience,” Lemos said.

“We still don’t know what the school year will look like in terms of a response to COVID,” Lemos said. “In the fall, social distance requirements may present themselves as challenging in the classroom and shops. Additionally, our program will be expanding as we’re hiring a new ag teacher and absorbing the woodshop program into the ag department. We’ll also be in the middle of construction on the school farm.”
He said funding will likely be tighter and budget cuts will affect all programs. “Until now, we’ve gotten additional funding through the Agriculture Incentive Grant for reduced class sizes. We’ve been told that we may be increasing class sizes which will lower the quality of education and increase the cost to run hands-on classes such as ag mechanics or lab based sciences.”

Lemos realizes his program is entering a difficult budgetary time but hopes the district “will recognize the additional costs of the programs they decided to expand and take this into consideration when making budgetary decisions that affect the CTE department.”


Lodi High School

Veteran ag instructor Brent Newport reports that the ag program has “305 unduplicated students” taught by himself, Kim Schmierer and Jessica Barrett with “administrative support that hasn’t missed a step” despite a 100% turnover in the Lodi High administration team. “All the new administrators are supportive of the ag program,” he said.

There is very strong community support and an outstanding boosters group and, Newport said, “The boosters group was able to give $25,000 in scholarships to graduating seniors last year.”

The students have a number of college aligned courses with Delta College and Modesto JC articulation: ornamental horticulture, ag mechanics, ag welding and floral design. Course pathways consisted of agriscience, ag mechanics and ornamental horticulture.

Another plus: the program has moved into the new, 1,000 square foot greenhouse.

The Annual Boosters Crab Feed was “a great success,” Newport said, “thanks to the parent group and our community involvement.”

The school farm is set up for pigs, sheep, goats, rabbits and poultry.

Newport said the horse team competed at the National Competition in October but the springs teams “were obviously cut short due to COVID, but Farm Power, Livestock, Veg Crop and Floral were able to compete at UC Davis. Ag Welding competed at the Merced College Welding Contest and we had success at the Delta-Cal sectional speaking contest.” Nathan Weeks won Extemporaneous Speech and Kallani Diaz placed first in Job Interview and later finished sixth in the regional contest.

“We had eight students get their State FFA Degree and Stephan Brehm and Caitlin Newport applied for their American FFA Degrees,” said Newport.

COVID-19 affected Lodi’s participation this year in many events, but Newport is confident the school and ag department will be able to bounce back when things open up. He said distance learning was a “definite challenge [and] chances are we’ll start with a hybrid version next school year.”

He said, “San Joaquin County’s AgFest was almost canceled due to COVID but a dedicated group of individuals were able to put together a virtual show and sale. Thanks to their hard work and long hours, the kids were still able to experience AgFest this year.”


Manteca High School

Manteca High School has 371 students in the ag/FFA program and Amanda Martinez, Heather Nolan and Ryan Coggins are their instructors.

“During this half a school year, some major projects were completed,” Martinez said. “The greenhouse was finished and the removal of an old concrete foundation in the garden was completed to make room for a new shade house.”

Other work done on campus included relocating flower beds because of the new greenhouse and students learned how to run and install irrigation systems.

Students have the opportunity to join several co-ops, including honey bees, sheep, goats and rabbits. “Students can also house their San Joaquin AgFest projects at the farm as well,” Martinez said. “New to the farm is a turkey barn that was installed this year.”

With the greenhouse completion, a new state-of-the-art watering system will be installed in the fall and a new shade house for the garden area is in line for installation. “We’re hoping to have plasmaCAM’s new software and parts to get the plasmaCAM up and running,” she said.

Fundraising projects include football game concessions, a Drive Thru BBQ, See’s Candy sales, Star Buck Cup and holiday floral sales.

She said new classes this year were Landscape Design and Maintenance – students worked with their teacher and grounds staff to learn basic skills that included laying chalk lines on the track and softball fields, hedge bushes, suing equipment like hedge trimmers, edgers, installing irrigation lines, trimming trees and designing new plantings for some of the areas on campus. “Unfortunately, with the COVID shutdown the students weren’t able to finish several projects.”

Martinez said the program has the support of the school administration; she also said college aligned courses are in place.

Contestants in various FFA contests held in the fall “did really well” in a variety of events, Martinez said but “unfortunately, due to COVID our judging teams – Ag Mechanics, Floral, Dairy Products, Best Informed Greenhand and Cooperative Marketing teams and individuals were unable to compete,” Martinez said. “Most of our students raising livestock chose to find private buyers due to our fair’s future being uncertain,” Martinez explained. “We did have several students participate in the virtual San Joaquin AgFest and some did well.

Manteca’s top students included Trinity Hernandez the 2019-2020 FFA president; Alexandra Hall, a four year member and was the chapter secretary for the past school year; Vinson Murillo, in his first year of ag was active in chapter activities and a member of the CDE Ag Mech team and, noted Martinez, “He stayed after school almost every day to help in the shop or in the department in general.”

Emilee Craighead “works hard in and out of the classroom, not only being active in our chapter but also as a student athlete,” Martinez said; Jordan O’Connell played an important role as the chapter’s social media officer and sold her market lamb at AgFest; “Carson Smith was a workhorse in and out of the classroom, even with distance learning,” Martinez said. “He’s raised a market hog over the last two years.”

“Ryan Coggins filled in last spring as a long-term substitute and was hired for 2019-2020 as a full time addition to our program,” said Martinez. “He’s been a wonderful addition. Enrollment and participation is up in our shop classes because of his level of energy and dedication. We look forward to working with Ryan next school year.”

Grants awarded to the program include Perkins and Ag Incentive.

COVID-19 has hit Manteca’s ag/FFA program hard, as it has all schools. Martinez said, “It has limited the hands-on education that our students signed up for and they didn’t get the experience they normally gain. We can recover with a positive outlook and opening up our classes/labs to students to come in after school, if they’re interested, and gain the supervised hands-on experience they missed.”

Another COVID negative, Martinez said, is “Our program wasn’t able to extend to a four-teacher program. It’s taken away many of the events that usually attract younger members and to maintain overall interest.”


Merrill F. West High School, Tracy

The ag/FFA program at Merrill West has 571 students and Marlene Hepner, Holly Smith, Abigail Ferrell and Jordan Dajani are the program’s instructors. The hiring of another teacher’s been approved.

“There is a lot of support from our Career Technical Education director, principal and assistant principals to write, submit and be awarded the CTIEG (Career Technical Incentive Education) grant. Additional approval and funds for substitutes for program recruitment and field trips,” Hepner said. “The CTE director, principal and assistant principal also served as judges for local student events supporting the Agriscience Fair, speaking contest and leadership development.”

The program offers the advanced animal science class for the first time; college-aligned courses – pending final grades – will have between 30-35 students receiving three college credits from Modesto Junior College for taking, and passing with high marks, integrated animal science; the program is being offered for the first time.

A variety of campus projects have been undertaken: work on gardens, greenhouses and the school farm; additional spaces for Supervised Agricultural Experience (SAE) livestock projects, a meat bird fryer and creating housing for more student SAE projects at the garden, including space for swine, goats and a rabbit barn.

“Great district and administration support is providing for additional enclosures to be built to support more SAE project space and diversity,” Hepner said. “The Space and Engineering Academy also built additional animal enclosures.”

Thirteen additional student laptops for the mobile computer labs were made possible by the Central Region Consortium Grant. “This addition provided for three classrooms to have computer classes every day,” Hepner said.

Five State Degrees were earned; Diego Salinas placed in the Delta-Cal section speaking contest and “represented us well” at the finals competition,” Hepner said. “The Career Development Events season was cut short due to travel and school closures but not before the UC Davis event where the Light Horse team did well, as did Poultry Team. Ag Sales took fourth and then was fifth at the Arbuckle contest.

“Veronica Martinez Mota was our outstanding senior and scholarship winner for her four years of accomplishments, chapter presidency and leadership of the students in this program,” Hepner said.

The animal science pathway was completed, raising pathway options to three.

Hepner noted a variety of projects from the past school year: a new textbook adopted for the integrated animal science course completed the pathway; both floriculture courses and an animal science course were submitted to Modesto Junior College for articulation and dual enrollment and the animal science courses were submitted to the University of California for A-G approval.

The annual Tri-tip Drive Thru dinner, Poinsettia sales, a See’s candy sale, Flowers by the Month subscriptions were held before schools were shut down. “We were unable to complete our spring fundraisers,” Hepner said.

“Our ag/FFA program here is thankful for the San Joaquin Farm Bureau grant of $500 that supported our transportation cost and we received a donation of two FFA jackets from the Farm Bureau, too,” Hepner said. “The senior students had a new and wonderful agriculture industry experience traveling to the Tulare World Ag Expo and brought back lots of information.”

The program is in the announcement stage of the CTIEG first year grant, but with the state’s budget cuts, Hepner said the award amount remains unknown. “However, we do know that the Agriculture Incentive Grant, which has sustained our west program for the last 20 years will be cut substantially.”

Hepner said the future is mixed with the program increasing by one instructor, increased use of the agriculture garden and “looking forward to additional students completing college units.”

She said the year was “exciting, with additional student participation in all aspects of the program, including fundraising, degrees earned, CDE teams and leadership events in the fall, but the spring was cut short.”

“We are concerned,” she said, “about more cuts for education and CTE funding in the coming year as directed by the COVID safety guidelines and the state budget.”


Ripon Christian High School

Ripon Christian has 47 students in its ag program, which is a good percentage of the school’s 200 students.

“Our administration’s support for the program is outstanding,” said Allison Hoover, the program’s instructor. “The support from parents and the community is also terrific. For example, other than the Career Development Event (CDE) Natural Resources, the other CDE Ripon Christian FFA teams – Floriculture, Light Horse Judging, Dairy Cattle Judging, Farm Power and Machinery – are coached by volunteer parents and community members who’ve served in that role for at least four years.”

She explained that community service is a “great opportunity for FFA members to learn about the fourth line of the FFA motto: “living to serve” and, as a Christian FFA Chapter, the officers have desired to honor the Lord by being more active in local service. “This year we had three service projects [in 2019] prior to COVID.”

The service projects were Modesto Gospel Mission Garden Clean-up, a Toy Drive for Stockton Gospel Center Rescue Mission children and during National FFA week, a collection was taken at the FFA-hosted chapel and funds from a bake sale brought in $500 for Meme Hernandez, an agricultural missionary in Guatemala with Students International.

Major projects included the Christmas Tree Fundraiser; Ag Day, which featured 20 presentations on ag from various local industry representatives and student presenters to nearly 500 Ripon Christian students; and the establishment of a Natural Resources team wherein students studied native flora and fauna, natural resource issues, natural history, learned technical skills and to work as a team. The team’s supplies and activities were sponsored by a grant from the San Joaquin Farm Bureau Ag Education Foundation.

Hoover said because Ripon Christian is a private school, “we’re not eligible for public school funding, but we’re very grateful for the SJFB Foundation Grant for the Natural Resources team!”

“This year our FFA hosted its first-ever Greenhand Leadership Conference for freshman agriculture students,” Hoover said. “Natasha Smith and Caitlin Van Gorkum chaired the event and Chapter President Katelyn Struiksma and President Charlotte te Velde led sessions about what Ripon Christian FFA offers its members. And we were honored to have two California State FFA officers, Reagan Dahle and Kayla Zalesny, lead sessions about leadership skills, FFA at the state level, leadership and career skills.”

The junior/senior science elective animal science course has been articulated with Modesto Junior College for up to six credits of animal science courses at the college.

Members competing and placing in a multitude of events included Andrew Copland, Bryce Hiemstra (class of 2017 received his American FFA Degree, a first for the school), Garrett Bryan, Ariel Vander Woude, Katelyn Struiksma, Colton Hoekstra, John Van Vliet, Natasha Smith, Silas Vander Woude, Gianna Smith, Nick te Velde, Rachel Oosterman, Tanner Hoekstra, Janine Prins, Kirsi Vander Meulen and Charlotte te Velde.

“Our students are all outstanding,” Hoover said. “Of all 47 students in our program this year, over 80% were actively involved in a career development event or leadership development event or both, attended a leadership conference and/or served in a leadership role.”

About COVID’s impact, Hoover said, “Other than seeing all spring FFA events canceled, the virus hasn’t affected the program dramatically. The officers adapted to virtual FFA banquet/officer interviews and the advisor did virtual Supervised Agricultural Experience visits this spring. [The department staff and students] look forward to continuing to learn how to adapt to unique situations and teach the youth of the ag program how to persevere and make the best of difficult situations.”

Hoover has left Ripon Christian to pursue a career in her home state of Pennsylvania. She was replaced by Megan Dyk in the agriscience position. The school also hired Cherise Duncan, ag mechanics certified instructor, who will also continue the industrial arts program under the umbrella of agricultural education, creating a two-teacher ag program.


Ripon High School

The Ripon high school ag department has four teachers – Ryan Patterson, Sherry Johns, Celeste Morino and new hire Danielle Hyatt – for the program’s 210 students.

The site and district administrations have been supportive of “multiple grants applications, student travel and program activities,” said Patterson, adding, “There is continued parent and community support of our ag advisory committee, serving to proofread and advise us on a K-12 strong work force grant, Career Tech Education incentive grant and facilities grant applications.”

He said all of Ripon’s capstone courses are aligned: ag welding, ag fabrication, ag environmental science, ag biology, animal science, veterinary science, compact diesel engines and small gas engines.

The ag department has had development and board approval of a plant and soil science pathway. New courses include introduction to food and agriculture, and food science.

Patterson said the outstanding student was Angelina Cortez who, over the years, had applied for various leadership positions and never got discouraged with being turned down, according to Patterson. “Her senior year all the hard work and persistence paid off when she was elected chapter president, selected to represent Ripon FFA at the Sacramento Leadership Experience, Sub Committee Chair for State Convention and elected as a Delta Cal Sectional Vice President.”

Campus projects may seem a mundane topic but campuses usually need such things as Ripon acquired: an upgraded science classroom with new lab sinks, hot water heater, dish washer and storage room.

As an adjunct to the projects Ripon added compact diesel engines, a new Cnc plasma table, a CO2 laser and a Bovine Artificial Insemination simulator. Also, a new cover for the sheep and goat barn/practice area was installed and a chicken coop and egg processing facility were added “for future Student SAE (Sustainable Ag Education) projects.”

Course pathways consisted of ag mechanics, ag business, animal science and plant and soil science.

The ag department’s fundraiser Cows, Carbs and Cocktails dinner in December was, he said, “A great success!”

Bad news sometimes follows good and, Patterson explained, “Like most programs, we shut down in March and transitioned to distance learning. It was a rough transition, as it was difficult to maintain the same relationships over the internet.”

“We offered two different online programs for the capstone classes, a job skill platform walking students through the process to get a job,” he said. “The other was an OSHA 10 certification; this certification will aid in job placement and exposure to industry.”

About COVID-19, he said, “Like most, we’re uncertain about what the future holds. It’s difficult to plan for the upcoming year with the talk of hybrid school schedules, distance learning and balancing family both at school and at home.”

He said from the teachers perspective, “there’s a certain head space we need to be in to tackle the school year with the constant changes of COVID-19. But, it will all work out with a lot of patience and grace. We all definitely miss our kiddos and are hopeful to see them in August.”


Sierra High School, Manteca

Amy Bohlken, Sierra’s ag instructor has a strong curriculum for her 180 ag students, offering three classes that meet graduation requirements and two courses that are articulated with Modesto Junior College.

“Our administration is extremely supportive, offers financial help, assistance and guidance,” Bohlken said. “And I feel blessed to have students that I call ‘mine’, students that are eager to learn and lead by example.” She added, “I always receive excellent support from the community and parents. I can always count on these individuals when extra help is needed.”

Bohlken’s students were active before the pandemic shutdown, raising market hogs, market goats and market steers. “I also had students who were part of the district’s bee co-op and rabbit co-op.”

Three of Bohlken’s students received State Degrees; a student won the Sectional Proficiency in Ag Processing and is “a member of the district’s bee co-op and owns his own hives as well,” she said. “Another student applied for his American Degree.”

Bohlken is excited about “our upcoming Phantom Fireworks booth fundraiser this year. Our local crab feed was a great success.”

She also felt “extremely fortunate” to have received two site Career and Technical Education (CTE) vehicles. A facility upgrade included the ag classroom receiving a new floor.

About COVID-19, Bohlken said, “The shutdown was a struggle. I lost communication with some students. Online learning was challenging for several students. It took activities away from students that they enjoyed participating in, for example, the canceled FFA State Convention, scheduled for Anaheim.”


Tokay High School, Lodi

Tokay High School’s ag/FFA program has 358 students with Becky Freeman, Jessie Peterson and Matt Vierra doing the instructing.

“Lodi Unified School District and the Tokay High School administrations are extremely supportive, especially Principal Erik Sandstrom,” Freeman said. “And we have amazing Parent Booster support.”

Two major projects were completed: the large animal barn and a new greenhouse; college-aligned courses included floral design, aligned with Modesto Junior College; and ag mechanics and ornamental horticulture, aligned with Delta College; ag leadership and advanced floral design will be added next year; Pathway courses include ag mechanics, ornamental horticulture and ag science.

The Fruit Cocktail Trees fundraiser will be done again in the fall and the Drive Thru BBQ and the Booster Crab Feed rounded out the fundraiser menu.

The two acre, on-campus farm is thriving with 47 varieties of grapes, plums, peaches and cherries along with a greenhouse, garden beds and a new livestock facility for small and large animals. “We also added a poultry co-op program,” Freeman said. “We adopted chickens from the Camp Fire that couldn’t be re-homed. Those chickens are cared for by the students and eggs are sold to staff.”

“We had eight State Degrees CDE teams: Floral, Grapevine Pruning, Best Informed Greenhand, Veterinary Science, Ag Welding and many good public speaking performances,” Freeman said. “It’s obvious we have a lot of great students who work really hard for the program.”

Freeman said that because of COVID-19, “Students missed out on many opportunities in the spring from the State FFA Convention to Field Days. Luckily the students had the opportunity to see their animal projects – 19 goats, seven lambs and five hogs – through via the virtual AgFest

 “We hosted our own Grapevine Pruning Contest in January,” Freeman said. “We had teams from all over California.”


Tracy High School

With 458 students in the ag/FFA program, instructors Laura Kelley, Pat Rooney, Jason Gentry, Georgia Souza and Alexandra Rocha are busy with a variety of projects.

Kelley said, “During the shortened school year, the garden was prepped and planted but, unfortunately due to the COVID-19 school closure we were unable to harvest the crops.”

Despite that setback, Kelley said the program has a “landscaping area where our students learn how to drive a tractor, prep, plant, care for and harvest a garden. We have an animal/livestock area where students that want to raise an animal, but don’t have access to do so, may raise sheep and goats.” Tracy also has meat processing, vet skills, welding and woodshop courses and “two courses that are articulated with the community colleges, welding and vet science.” Course pathways include ag mechanics, animal science and agriscience.

She said the program is “very fortunate at Tracy High to have an amazing administrative team. They are very supportive of our program and students. For example, our principal and head counselor judged a regional speech contest for us.”

“Tracy’s parents and community are also very supportive of our program,” explained Kelley. “Parents are always stepping up to help with fundraising events, driving extra students to events and donating to our live and silent auction at our annual crab feed.”

The community does its part by providing scholarships for outstanding ag students, helping guide the program via the ag advisory board, judging competitive events and helping with fundraising efforts such as the Yankee Candle Sale and the annual FFA Foundation Crab Feed.

While the program didn’t acquire new equipment this year, Kelley said, “We simply repaired and maintained equipment that we had acquired through the past few years, such as mowers, tractors, welders, etc.”

Ten students earned their State FFA Degree and one earned an American FFA Degree; Madison Kelley placed first in the Sectional Prepared Speaking Contest, Hayden Andrade placed second and both moved to the Regional Contest. “Unfortunately, with COVID-19, all of our judging contests were canceled,” noted instructor Kelley.

Kelley said Tracy’s program has an enormous group of outstanding students such as Madison Kelley – received her State FFA Degree as a junior, shows pigs at the local, county, state and national level, placed first in the section prepared public speaking contest, was a member of the livestock judging team, Chapter President, Delta Cal Section President, Junior AgFest Board President and the program’s most active member.

The Tracy program has received an Ag Incentive Grant, Perkins Funds and CTE funds.

“COVID cut our year short in so many ways; all of or spring events were canceled and will not be rescheduled and it’s put a level of uncertainty on everything moving forward,” Kelley said. “Will we be allowed to host events like in the past? How will they be different? Will we be returning to school? What will we be allowed to participate in?”

“Ag education in California receives a lot of negative attention because the general public doesn’t understand the need for agriculture in California,” Kelley said. “The industry literally feeds, clothes and houses us. Without it we’ll be naked and hungry. It’s our job as agriculturists to proactively educate the general public about the need, the good positive aspects of agriculture so we’re not always playing the role of damage control publicist.”


Weston Ranch High School, Stockton

(Manteca USD)

Weston Ranch High School boasts 280 students in the Weston Ranch ag/FFA program with Chris Livingood manning the ag instructor position. “The other ag position is vacant and will not be hired due to budget cuts,” he said, adding that, “due to statewide budget cuts, we’re looking at a 50% reduction in funding for the ag program.”

If that wasn’t depressing enough, he said, “The second ag teacher position is not being filled as of right now which will leave over 150 students without the opportunity to take an ag class.”

Doing their part to alleviate the funding angst, the school’s FFA Alumni group put on their first Crab Feed and Auction dinner and raised more than $15,000 for the FFA students. 

The ag department lost a shop, Livingood said, because, “our principal took away one of our shops to turn it into another gym for the athletics program. He felt the prior shop teacher hadn’t used the space enough and didn’t think it was as important to have a project space for ag students. We still have a welding shop and a wood shop.”

“All ag science courses are A-G approved and aligned,” he said. “This year our greenhouse sold out in our annual petunia sale, the community rallied together to purchase all the flowers from the greenhouse when the school shut down due to COVID.” Livingood introduced a poultry co-op for students to take care of egg laying chickens. “The eggs were donated by local poultry breeders and hatched on site in the animal science classes. The eggs are being sold to pay for feed.”

Course pathways included animal science, ornamental horticulture and ag mechanics.

This was the first year small animal care classes were offered to students where they were provided with hands-on labs to work with small and exotic animals.

New floral coolers were introduced so students could store their floral projects; and the school farm is home to sheep, goats, and pigs.

“Our FFA program is recognized as the top program in the region and in the top six of all ag programs in California this year,” said Livingood. “We’ll also be recognized at the National FFA convention.”

He also pointed out that Weston Ranch had five students who were awarded their State FFA degree: Maria Pascual, Cesar Valle, Robbie Hewitt and Breanna Kennedy.