FFA programs doing well despite pandemic

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By Craig W. Anderson

The diversified high school ag and FFA programs of San Joaquin County continued despite hurdles provided by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Innovative solutions kept the educational process alive via virtual classes holding the fort until in-person schooling returns for the 2021-2022 school year. With some degree of normalcy in place, county high school ag/FFA programs returned to educating the future agriculturalists who would eventually contribute to San Joaquin County’s healthy agriculture industry currently worth $2.6 billion.

The schools that responded to the San Joaquin Farm Bureau News’ request for information had experienced – finally – a renaissance in ag education and FFA programs despite the challenge of a worldwide pandemic.

Bear Creek High School

The 258 ag/FFA students at Bear Creek High School are taught by Suzanne Hillan, Jennifer Garrett and Brieana DeMelo, a group of teachers and students who weren’t intimidated by the pandemic as they put together a school-year program of raising chickens, turkeys, rabbits and goats.

“Once we were able to resume in-person school our shops students were able to start projects,” said Suzanne Hillan, ag teacher and FFA advisor. “The Ag Woodshop classes built toys for students and they will be donated to [the] Stockton Women’s Center and other community programs that help children.”

She also explained that Bear Creek students “attended virtual conferences and held virtual meetings all year to stay involved and connected.”

Hillan said support from the administration and school district aided their CARES funding activities that allowed the Ag department to “send students home with supplies to complete projects at their homes while we were distance learning. Some of these included flowers and digital microscopes.”

The courses available as college aligned include Floriculture – aligned with Modesto Junior College; Horticulture – Modesto JC; and new next school year: Welding with Modesto JC. “We are the only school in our district that offers Animal Science.”

Course pathways at Bear Creek High School are, “Agriscience, Ag Mechanics and Horticulture.” Hillan said,

Hillan was enthusiastic about Bear Creek’s school farm. “Our farm is small, but mighty! Our new farm will include a new greenhouse, poultry and livestock barns, and an area for crops and a cut flower garden which is currently out to bid. We’re hoping to start breaking ground this next school year.” She added, “We currently have 15 garden beds that our students cleaned and got back up and running in April when we started in-person learning.”

At the present time, Bear Creek has a small farm with dog kennels and a barn made by parents. “We are looking forward to expanding our program when we have our new farm,” Hillan said. “Students are excited about having a poultry co-op and being able to raise more animals on campus.” Teachers, administration, students and parents are, she said, “Working on getting our new farm up and going.”

She noted that parent and community support is being augmented by “Our starting a new Ag Boosters [group] this next year.”

The department has received an Ag Incentive Grant and a Perkins Grant. As far as local fundraising was concerned, Hillan said, “We sold Christmas wreaths and Da Vinci’s dinners. Due to the pandemic all our other fundraisers had to be canceled.”

Among these many activities, Hillan said, “Yuria Zalcedo placed seventh in Creed at Sections.”

Hillan said the Bear Creek ag department is “growing and changing. We were unable to recruit this year which had a big impact on our program. We ag teachers have some big and exciting things we are implementing this next school year [as] we look forward to revamping our program.”

East Union High School, Manteca

East Union’s 512 students in the ag program are taught by John Hopper, Tristyn Silva, Kristen Buck and Lucas Chaves with the cooperation of all being needed when, during the pandemic-affected school year, the department moved into the school’s new Ag facility. It was, said Hopper, the major project of the school year. Other activities included two new classrooms, one new metal shop, a remodeled woodshop and three remodeled classrooms.

“Trying to teach hands-on classes in a virtual setting has been challenging,” Hopper said. “Limited in-person lab time has also been difficult. We’ve done our best to have virtual meetings.”

He explained that “getting more students involved now that we are going back to in-person learning, having to reteach students about the program, these are additional hardships educators face.”

An Ag Incentive grant and a Work Force grant also helped the program.

Course pathways were Horticulture, Ag Science and Mechanized Ag.

He said, “The administration and district’s support has been there for us in all that we do.” They’re installing a new greenhouse and rebuilding garden beds. New equipment included a C&C Router and Laser Engraver in metal shop and the addition of Chaves who “will be teaching additional woodshop classes.”

Hopper also said, “A variety of parents have helped this year along with community and business support.”

Due to COVID, “we only were able to do fruit tree sales and [the] Fungandez Drive Through BBQ,” Hopper said.

In the FFA accomplishments department, Hopper explained, “Two students were elected as sectional officers for this coming school year, three state degrees” and animal awards that included, two sheep, five goats, three steers, one dairy heifer, four turkeys, 11 rabbits and 11 pigs.

Hopper singled out Maris Prado, chapter president and sectional president, who “goes above and beyond, worked hard to figure out ways to involve students virtually during COVID.”

Escalon High School

The 380 students in Escalon’s ag/FFA program are taught by Isabella Leventini, Gypsy Stark and Kenny Saephan and this past school year was “challenging, but the ag department has persevered,” Leventini said. “We were able to bring students back in November for four days a week.”

During that time, the ag mechanics classes and the Ornamental Horticulture class finished the greenhouse irrigation system and built planting tables. Those classes also constructed redwood planter boxes at the school farm and started vegetable and flowers to fill the planter boxes, a flower garden and rose garden.

“We plan to gravel the entire school farm and continue to update the facilities/equipment that are currently there,” Leventini said, adding that throughout “this difficult year, administration supported the goals we are reaching toward as a department. They supported our vision in expanding our school farm and our program with new pathways.”

Animal Science is articulated with Modesto Junior College and Leventini anticipates more courses will be articulated in the 2022-2023 school year.

The department was awarded a $200,000 grant to help start a brand new two-year Food Science pathway. Leventini’s two years’ worth of curriculum will be posted for the entire state to use. Students will be introduced to the food science industry, providing them with insight into how scientific principles affect food. The woodshop will be renovated into a new, state of the art food science laboratory.

Escalon’s Ag Department was awarded the “Outstanding Three Person Department” for the Delta Valley Section and Leventini was named the “Outstanding Young Teacher” of the section.

Escalon also received an Ag Incentive grant (CTEIG) and the Strong Workforce grant which will expand classes and implement an internship program; the funds will help update shop equipment, expand the Ornamental Horticulture equipment and buy new science equipment and tools. In the past year new vehicles were purchased.

Internships are also being sought with local businesses in agricultural and manufacturing industries for work experience gleaned during the work day for class credits.

Despite the tumultuous year, Leventini said the senior class has “more than 30 students headed to four-year and two year colleges, an apprenticeship program or who will be gainfully employed after graduation.”

Despite many FFA events being canceled, she said, “We had seven students compete in speaking competitions, many reaching the reginal level. Jacob Duto and Molly Terpstra were elected to the Delta Valley Sectional Officer Team.” Nearly 50 students participated in AgFest.

Community support contributed to the success of the annual Holiday Meal Drive and this, in addition to an American Ag Credit donation and continued support by the FFA Parent Boosters the FFA fed more than 15 families in the local community.

“We are looking forward to next year and hoping for a sense of normalcy,” Leventini said.

Lathrop High School

Danelle “Dani” Ariaz, Department Head for the Lathrop High School’s ag/FFA programs, said the 239 students in the ag program and their teachers “focused on the district Co-Ops at the farm. We have three Co-Ops the kids can be a part of: Rabbits, Sheep/Goats and Bees. The students had a great time being active at the farm even though we were still in hybrid and even when we were on remote learning. They got to see the whole process from start to finish on each co-op they chose to be on.”

The COVID pandemic was dealt with but it was “a hard year,” Ariaz said. “We were lucky, though, to have had five weeks with all of our students. That gave us a chance to get to know them better and to be able to see them enjoy school again. We are gearing up to start full steam ahead for next year.”

She noted that ‘quite a few kids who could have received awards and degrees this year who decided to wait until next year so they can receive the awards in person.”

Ariaz explained Lathrop currently has 20 wether dam ewes, 30 boer does and about 20 Californian rabbits. “All of them are bred for market projects for our fair and others throughout the state.”

“We had a few students really step up this year at the farm and we’re looking forward to growing next year with a new teacher [who] will be teaching our Ag Mechanics classes,” Ariaz said. “We are very excited to have her experience.” She should fit right in with the course pathways of Ag Mechanics, Ornamental Horticulture and Animal Science.

Linden High School

Linden’s 388 ag students are taught by Christopher Lemos, Natalie Stevano, Jana Colombini and Travis Gonsalves and during this pandemic year a fourth ag teacher joined the Linden crew to replace the CTE woodshop instructor. “We worked to integrate the two pathways into one Agriculture Mechanics pathway,” Lemos said.

All of Linden’s agriscience classes are college prep and the program has a number of ongoing articulation agreements with local community colleges. “A number of our ag mechanics classes now are both University of California-California State University [UC/CSU] approved for fine art credit,” he said.

Lemos said work has continued on building an animal unit for the school farm; the architect has completed the blueprints and some of the construction materials have been acquired.

The upcoming school year will mark the return of a horticulture-based plant science class. “It has been several years since we’ve had a horticulture class at Linden,” Lemos said. “We’re excited to be offering this class again, which will allow us to utilize our outstanding horticulture facilities.”

The school farm expansion has been enhanced by the purchase of a compact tractor with a loader which will be used in the maintenance of the school farm animal unit and in the horticulture unit and crop areas too.

The school purchased the entire hardware section of a lumberyard/hardware store that went out of business; this purchase included the entire inventory and all of the storage and displays. Additional purchases included a resaw machine, which is essentially a sawmill. The two acquisitions will be a great asset to the ag mechanics pathway.

“Our administration has continued its support, especially with the unique challenges we faced this year,” noted Lemos. “They understand the unique needs of hands-on classes and helped us come up with specialized protocols allowing us to give the students the best possible experience while meeting all COVID mandates.”

Linden’s school farm continues to grow grapes, cherries and walnuts; two active greenhouses and a shade yard for horticulture plants are adjacent to six raised beds planted in seasonal vegetable crops which are rotated throughout the year. Lemos said, “We hope to continue our momentum on building the animal unit as part of our school farm expansion.”

While some fundraising activities were limited due to COVID, the department was able to modify some of its normal fundraisers later in the year when restrictions had lessened. The ag boosters club held its first drive-thru tri-tip dinner that was an outstanding success, Lemos said.

FFA accomplishments found Natalie Stefano honored with the CTA Teacher of Excellence and Linden’s chapter was voted Outstanding Large Chapter in its Section.

The ag department currently has active pathways in Agriscience, Floral and Agriculture Mechanics.

“The Linden community continues to support our program,” Lemos said. “This was the first full year with our new Agriculture Boosters Club. It has been refreshing to see the overwhelming show of support for our program. Many people want to help.”

Linden continued to receive the Agriculture Incentive Grant [AIG] and the Career Technical Education Incentive Grant [CTEIG] and a Perkins Grant, with the school farm expansion significantly funded via the CTEIG.

The COVID pandemic definitely had an effect on Linden High School, according to Lemos. “To say that it’s been a challenging year would be an understatement. The majority of our classes are hands-on in nature. And with the distance learning mandate, a large portion of our normal activities weren’t possible. We as teachers and advisors were forced to create alternative activities.”

However, the pandemic ironically delivered benefits, Lemos said. “For example, it has forced us to expand our knowledge and comfort level when it comes to technology. We’ve digitized many of our traditional assignments and assessments which will streamline their use in the future.”

The department benefited from an FFA Chapter Officer Team that came up with alternative activities that gave students the opportunity to stay involved in FFA at home. Eventually, Lemos said, “When we came back in person they came up with in person activities that allowed the students to have fun while maintaining proper social distance and staying safe.”

Lodi High School

Brent Newport, Kim Schmierer and Jessica Barrett taught 280 students in Lodi High School’s ag program and “Our major projects done during the pandemic-affected school year included building a poultry enclosure, compliments of the Lodi FFA Boosters,” Newport said. The campus greenhouse is full of plants and the vineyard/orchard is “looking good,” he said.

“We have ongoing district support,” Newport said. “And our parent support is outstanding. Our fundraisers, the school farm and student supervision are all effective.”

A new tractor was purchased for the school farm and the shop was rewired for the new welders; the school farm – vineyard, orchard and greenhouse, facilities for pigs, sheep, goats, rabbits, chickens and turkeys – is doing well and facility additions include a new poultry facility and new machinery in the shop.

“We had three students compete in the Sectional and UC Davis Job Interview contests; four student competed in the Merced and Fresno Welding contests and the State Finals. Our welding team placed fourth in the State competition,” Newport said. “We also had 16 state degree recipients and two applicants for the American FFA degree.”

College aligned courses included Modesto Junior College – floral; San Joaquin Delta College – Ornamental Horticulture, Ag Mechanics and Ag Welding.

Newport said CTEIG, CPA and AIG dollars “help fund the program.” Fundraising projects included a March golf tournament which was, he said, “a fun time for all and a great success.”

He said the pandemic affected “the communication with students which was very challenging. On the other hand, Lodi FFA has more than 60 members competing in AgFest this year and the Lodi FFA Ag Boosters handed out more than $13,000 in scholarships to our ag students.”

Manteca High School

With more than 350 ag/FFA students, Amanda Martinez, ag instructor and FFA advisor for the Ag Department, was happy about that. Three teachers were working during the 2020-2021 school year and “We were able to add another to the program because we have been growing.” Thus, in addition to her, Heather Nolan and Ryan Coggins, the future of the program will have Chris Livengood – a transfer from Weston Ranch – carrying a portion of the teaching load.

The COVID pandemic didn’t slow the implementation of a watering system being installed in the greenhouse where every bench can have either overhead drip or individual drip per pot. Martinez said other projects include “getting the floors updated to finished concrete. Carpet and old flooring is being torn out. The finished floors will be much easier to clean up after the labs and floral classes.”

New equipment arriving included two table saws and three chop saws and work bench for the wood shop, metal shear, plasma table, three drill presses for the wood and metal shops, an iron worker and two metal band saws. Course pathways the department will be pursuing include Animal Science, Ag Mechanics, Art History, Floral Design and Ornamental Horticulture.

Helping all of these projects along is the administration’s and district’s support, Martinez said. “We have great support from our administration and the district.”

Fundraising has helped Manteca’s situation via Butter Braids, Sees Candy and Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory Carmel apples sales. 

Helping raise funds are the alumni group Friends of Manteca FFA. “They are looking for more people to join them in support of our program,” Martinez said.

“We received a large CTE funding that allowed us to purchase new equipment for our Wood and Ag Mechanics shops,” explained Martinez.

Lathrop fared well in the FFA competitions such as two State Degrees, Opening and Closing teams, BIG and Floral and Creed speakers.

However, COVID “affected our program by depriving our students of hands-on learning,” Martinez said. “We were not able to do labs and shop projects.”

Merrill F. West High School, Tracy

With 711 students in the ag program and FFA chapter for the 2020-2021 school year, the teaching team of Marlene Hepner, Jordan Dajani, Abigail Ferrell and Alexandra Rocha was a busy group of educators.

The pandemic seems to have stimulated major projects in the county’s high schools and “a major accomplishment for this year has centered around planning, writing rational plans, researching ordering materials and spending the California Career Technical Education Incentive Grant [CTEIG],” Hepner said. “Many times this year there were extra team and live department meetings to discuss priorities and considerations for the grant funds.”

The pandemic caused an upgrade in West’s social media and the school’s YouTube channel was born.

“Merrill F. West is incredibly blessed to have amazing support for the program at the site and management levels including the Facility and CTE directors,” Hepner said. This support has led to the writing for the third CTEIG, plans for a site facilities upday, the addition of staff for the coming year and for the local judging of all the Leadership Development Events [LDE] and speaking contests.

Hepner said the staff is “delighted that Audrianna Farmer and Taylor Meyers will be joining the school’s team for the upcoming school year” and that they have already started meeting and planning for next year’s program of activities.”

All of West’s courses meet A-G requirements: Ag Biology, Ag Chemistry and Ag Physics are all D Lab requirements; Integrated Animal Science, Advanced Animal Science and the new Ag Mechanics 1 classes are all G elective; Floral is a fine art requirement.

“We have continued to work on improving our school farm and facilities by completing the rabbit barn, completing a 10-pen small animal enclosure that’s been used for chicken Agriscience projects, raising turkeys and AgFest chickens,” Hepner explained.

And she said, thanks to the CTEIG, “We will be able to purchase equipment and supplies to launch our first Agriculture Mechanics course next year.”

That CTEIG grant has come in handy, allowing the ag department to purchase a truck, livestock trailer, panels, incubators, Agriscience kits and tools. Hepner said in coming years “we hope to be able to purchase vans, welding and shop equipment, and more.”

Due to the pandemic fundraising was limited to two Online See’s Candy sales and the annual Poinsettia and Easter Lily sale.

The program has enjoyed numerous COVID Safe Garden workdays, completing all the poultry enclosures, insulating the poultry and rabbit barn, several Agriscience project were designed and completed and the garden area was used for recording all chapter meetings, freshman orientation and more.

Despite pandemic panic, the FFA accomplishments were solid with eight state degrees earned; competitors in creed, prepared public speaking, impromptu speaking, job interview and extemporaneous speaking did well with many top finishes. Students competed in multiple CDE contests including Vet Science, horse and livestock judging, floral, ag sales, cooperative marketing and ag pest control, again doing well with the Ag Pest Control team winning the state contest.

“We have amazing students at West High School,” said Hepner who singled out Catherine Petersen, Gloria Martinez-Mota and George Alcala for their exemplary efforts.

“We have great support from our principal Dr. Boswell and the district maintenance team provided for additional electrical service for the rabbit barn,” Hepner said.

There are three current complete course pathways, Agriscience, Animal Science and Floriculture. The Ag Mechanics pathway will be completed in the 2022-2023 school year.

The program continued to meet with the advisory committee members over three annual meetings and for several parent meetings for fair preparations and the annual back to school night and parent conferences, all done virtually.

“Additional focus by the department went toward how to best serve our students in this pandemic year and there were lots of strategies initiated, data collected and discussed for improving student engagement and success,” Hepner said. “We feel that students had many opportunities, even new experiences as a result of the hard work by the local, sectional, regional and state FFA teams.”

Ripon High School

Ryan Patterson, Sherry Johns, Celeste Morino and Danielle Hyatt, teachers in Ripon High Schools Ag/FFA program, are responsible for educating 275 ag program students.

Patterson said the pandemic-affected school year didn’t prevent Ripon High School from building an egg processing facility, finishing a chicken coop for laying hens and refurbishing the campus greenhouse.

The school administration and district provide “great support to our programs” and “our seventh and eighth grade push in classes with a goal to expose middle school students to the CTE pathways offered at the high school.”

The high school acquired new equipment for the ag classes including a new ag truck, a 20-foot cattle trailer, a new forklift and a plan to begin building a possible new CTE facility. The school farm was renamed the Dave Luis Agriculture Education Facility, according to Patterson.

“Fundraising projects were not held due to the pandemic but we’ll have a fireworks booth in July,” Patterson said.

He said eight Ripon FFA members received state degrees and received four American farmer’s degrees; Macie McPeak won a National Scholarship, and Kyle Blankenship received a first place High Individual award in Small Engines; and Marek Postma finished third in High Individual Ag Welding.

McPeak will be attending Oklahoma State; Ean Richards will enroll in Stephan F. Austin State University; Blankenship is slated for the University of the Pacific; and Emma Ayers will attend Chico State. “All of these leading students have been heavily involved in the program within their respective pathways as well as FFA leadership and SAE involvement,” Patterson said. “All are program completers as well and all are headed to four year universities.”

Ripon’s Capstone classes are A-G approved and course pathways include Ag Mechanics, Ag Business and Plant and Soil Science. The ag department has applied for CTEIG, AIG and Perkins Grants to fund the pathways.

“We have maintained student involvement throughout the pandemic using Zoom FFA activities, virtual conference and social media outreach,” said Patterson, who will be leaving Ripon to assume a teaching position at Modesto Junior College.

Ripon Christian High School

Ripon Christian’s 75 active students involved in the ag/FFA program are taught by Megan Dyk and Cherise Duncan and a number of major projects were undertaken during the COVID pandemic such as a livestock facility, built in-house by students.

“A local community member generously donated space to build a livestock facility which is currently being used by students raising pigs, with many more available pens for next year,” Dyk said, noting other projects involving horticulture – a small shade structure, raised beds and plant tables built by the Ag Mechanics class and used by agriscience and plant science classes throughout the year; a poultry project wherein the brooder and hen house built by woodshop students housed a semester-long pullet research project.

She said the “very supportive administrators and school board always help us to set and achieve our goals. We added a second ag teacher this year.”

Plant science students helped campus landscape management with pruning ornamental trees and shrubs in the winter and spring and “students are enhancing their learning by growing their own plants on campus,” Dyk said. “Shop students built metal plant tables for the shade structure, woodshop students built shelves for art classes, mechanics students also helped paint the dugout on the baseball field, painted some picnic tables on campus and helped with other projects.”

She added, “Service is an important part of the mission of Ripon Christian [and] students are able to connect faith with learning though these types of projects.”

All of the formerly Industrial Arts courses are now realigned under the Agriculture Mechanics and Woodshop umbrella; new classes in the agriculture program taught by Duncan include Ag Mechanics, Ag Welding, Woodshop and extensive experience with Briggs and Stratton Overhead Valve small engines.

Dyk said she would like to have a campus greenhouse to help develop the plant science pathway. “We’d like to plan on purchasing a plasma table to be used to strengthen the Ag Mechanics pathway.”

Fundraisers included selling 250 Christmas trees along with wreaths; a Plant and Project Sale all with student grown and built items; and the Ripon Christian Merchandise and Livestock Auction.

“The parent committee leads the Christmas tree fundraiser, assists with livestock projects and development of facilities,” Dyk said. “Always someone to lend a hand wherever needed. Our community is very supportive.”

“Ours is not a traditional ‘school farm’ but a livestock facility built off campus for students to use,” Dyk said. “There is a roof structure with pens for swine…with much room to grow in the future.”

The school is looking into the possibility of taking over the management of a small orchard close to campus with students conducing a feasibility study to determine if this a viable option.

FFA accomplishments: Light Horse Judging CDE team: Third place, State; Floriculture CDE team: Team top 12 in State, fourth high individual state; Farm Power and Natural Resources CDE teams-competed throughout the year; Creed-First place Sectional- Kenzie Hoekstra.

State Degrees: Jay Hoekstra, Colton Bryan, Silas Vander Woude, Natasha Smith. American Degrees: Tanner Hoekstra, Brett Doek, Drew Van Vliet. Prepared Public Speaking: First place sectional-Ava Buwalda Job Interview: Third place sectional – Caitlin Van Gorkum Proficiency: First place Central Region and State Finalist-Nursery Production – Natasha Smith. Agriscience Fair Project: Third in State-Food Products & Processing-Joel Van Groningen. Sectional President: Ava Buwalda selected as Sectional President for 2021-2022

Show team: 10 members showing/selling livestock, rabbits and dairy at AgFest; six members showing Ag Mechanics projects.

Four students received special notice for their accomplishments: Caitlin Van Gorkum, will attend Chico State; Colton Hoekstra, attending Cisco College in Texas, Caleb Dillender to enroll in Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee and Natasha Smith, will attend Grand Canyon University.

“We were blessed to have in-person learning almost the entire year here at Ripon Christian,” Dyk commented.

Agricultural education and FFA are still relatively new to the school – in their sixth year – and with two new instructors, it was a year of many new ideas and changes, according to Dyk. “We continue to educate the RC community and student population about the vast benefits of being involved in the FFA and agriculture. The majority of parents and constituents were never exposed to FFA. Spreading awareness for the importance of agriculture education continues to be a top priority and goal.”

Sierra High School, Manteca

Amy Bohlken, ag instructor/FFA advisor, along with Ben Garrett – who will be arriving in August to teach Basic Ag Mechanics and Ag Welding – has 170 students in the ag program and “Our welding shop is currently being reinvented.”

“I am truly blessed with amazing students who are trustworthy, strive to do their best and [are] all-around great individuals,” she said.  “Our chapter won the Outstanding Small Program Award for the Delta Valley Section.”

Bohlken is “Extremely thankful for the continued support we receive from both the district and the site levels.” She added, “I have excellent parent support that I can count on when extra help is needed.”

The Sierra ag program’s Animal Science and Floriculture courses are articulated with Modesto Junior College and the Ag Earth Science, Floriculture and Sustainable Ag Biology courses meet graduation requirements. “This coming school year we will be adding Ag Shop courses to our department,” Bohlken said.

She said the current campus project is working on the campus garden area.

The “extremely profitable” fundraiser was the chapter’s Phantom Fireworks booth.

The COVID pandemic-driven shutdown “was a struggle,” Bohlken explained. “Lost communication with some students. Online learning was challenging for several students.”

She noted that “Students were greatly affected by the State FFA in-person activities being cancelled. It was great to end the school year with students in the classroom for four days a week.”

Tokay High School, Lodi

Tokay’s 330 ag students benefit from their three instructors, Matt Vierra, Jessie Peterson and Becky Freeman.

Some good things happened during the COVID pandemic, according to Vierra. “The pathways for Ag Welding and Ag Mechanics were operating and we received funding for a grant I wrote that paid for a trailer and $35,000 for a large Kubota tractor.”

The ag department has also benefitted from a Perkins Grant and an Ag Incentive Grant.

The administration’s help with all fundraisers is very welcome Vierra said and acquiring a fourth teacher for the program is a good step forward.

The college aligned courses include Ag Biology and Ag Soil Chemistry which are aligned with the UC and CSUS systems; Introduction to Floriculture and Introduction to Ag Mechanics are both articulated with San Joaquin Delta College.

Tokay benefits from its 2.5 acre school farm which features a vineyard, a crop of fruit trees and a 1,500 square foot greenhouse for plants and other growing projects. Two shops and two classrooms used as lab facilities compliment a pair of animal facilities of 1,000 square feet and 1,700 square feet. More than 40 grape varieties, seven varieties of stone fruit, and production from the poultry co-op including eggs are marketed to staff and students from the entirely student-managed program.

“We’ve begun a new class in workshops: Ag Leadership, which is important to the other FFA classes and competitions,” Vierra said, adding, “The leadership tactics and details are themselves valuable to Ag and FFA students.”

The department added during the COVID shutdown a plasma cutting table and a generator/welder system.

Fundraisers had their moments as Vierra described a crab feed with boosters, sponsorships from local businesses and a drive through BBQ as being effective money-makers. Even their providing cleanup for the Clements Stampede raised a few dollars as they collected bottles and aluminum and turned them in for their value. “The cowboys take care of what their animals may leave behind,” he said.

Vierra said two students had received their American Degrees – Cameron Heinitz and Bradley Handel – and two received their State Degrees – Amanda Freeman and Tatum Gogna. Weston Salustro graduated and will pursue a career in Ag Education at Chico State; Haley Koponen will be studying Equine Science following her high school graduation.

Course pathways are now operating for Ag Science, Plant Science and Ag Mechanics and a brand new greenhouse now graces the Tokay High School campus.

The pandemic grew new challenges that eliminated hands-on education but when hands-on has been allowed, “The kids are really responding to it,” Vierra said. “We’re having to catch up.” He also said courses such as Public Speaking, leadership events were heavily affected and “conducting a class with different ways to build rapport has been accomplished.”

“Ag and FFA provide vital lessons regarding how a person can take on a way of life and a great career,” Vierra said. “Ag education shows students ways to not only make a product that can be bartered, traded or sold but to produce something that you can take pride in. “

“Of course,” he said, “they can always become ag educators and spread the word via the learning process.”

Weston Ranch High School, Manteca

The Weston Ranch High School boasts 308 students in the ag program taught by Chris Livengood and Lucas Schultz.

Livengood said the projects done during the pandemic were somewhat limited but that “we collected supplies for soldiers and did community cleanup for Weston Ranch.”

The district and administration of Weston Ranch helped provide the tools needed for distance learning by purchasing online curriculum as well as classroom supplies so every student had their own personal supplies.

All Ag Science courses are A-G approved.

“We had a school garden this year as well as students raising animals for AgFest,” commented Livengood. “And we received a $40,000 plasma cutting table to cut large projects.”

Weston Ranch had two students complete their State FFA degree and, said Livengood, “We were recognized as a three star chapter this year with National FFA and are one of only six chapters in the state to earn this distinction.”

Outstanding students were Alejandra Arevalo, chapter President, Student School Board Representative, State FFA degree recipient and will pursue a veterinarian degree, and Jasmin Siordia, a State Degree recipient.

Weston Ranch will have two new ag teachers next school year because Livengood will be moving to Manteca to teach Ag Wood and Lucas Shultz is moving back to East Union. The new teachers are Ruel Celeste who will teach the shop classes and Natalie Gutierrez who will teach the Ag Science classes.

Course pathways at Weston Ranch include Animal Science, Floriculture and Ag Mechanics.

“We have an active FFA alumni,” said Livengood. “We received an AIG grant and the pandemic limited our activities this past school year. We had most of our meetings and competitions online and our students adapted.”

He said the students like “our classes because they are hands-on. The hope is to return to normalcy in the future. As the population continues to expand and technology continues to change, agriculture education is invaluable to the local community as well as providing leadership skills which students can’t get anywhere else.”