FFA programs in county remain strong

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By Craig W. Anderson

San Joaquin County’s high schools Ag/FFA programs have recovered from the COVID-19 pandemic, forging ahead as agricultural departments have moved away from virtual classes, returned to their traditional classrooms and school hands-on activities. Students are looking forward to entering the county’s ag industry valued at more than $3.2 billion, according to the agricultural commissioner’s office.

The county high schools responding to the San Joaquin Farm Bureau News’ request for information about the recently concluded 2023 school year were very positive about the renewed enthusiasm for agricultural education.

Here’s what the high school ag teachers had to say.

East Union High School

Veteran teacher John Hopper and three associates work with 346 ag students, among them Drake Ornellas who’s designed and installed the irrigation system in the ag department’s new greenhouse.

“The district’s been supplying good financial support and site administration has been doing a good job supporting our program and students,” Hopper related. Among those programs are college aligned Ag Science and Floriculture classes.

He said, “A lot of projects are being raised at the school farm which were shown at AgFest” and East Union’s Parliamentary Pro team qualified for state finals which was a great accomplishment for such a difficult contest.”

Hopper singled out Belle Beglinger as an outstanding student who brings dedication and energy to the program which, Hopper said, “Makes it easier to be an ag teacher.”

According to Hopper, three main pathways are offered: Ag Science, Ag Mechanics and Floriculture and the school is able to get incentive, CTEIG and Perkins funding.

“Proposition 12 and AB 554 are very concerning for ag teachers,” Hopper said. The bills are concerned with the treatment of animals, in particular, pigs.

Escalon High School

“480 students in our ag program represents over half of the school’s student population,” said Gypsy Stark, ag instructor at Escalon High School. She noted the instructors are herself, Kenny Saephan, Rachel Pimentel and Taylor Thatcher.

Major projects being implemented to meet the needs of these students includes construction of the new “state-of-the-art food science lab as part of the SSP Grant we are working on with the state to develop state adopted curriculum for a food science pathway,” explained Stark.

A new ag internship program is partnered with local ag businesses to place high school seniors with a goal of making them career-ready upon graduation.

Under construction are a floral cut flower garden, permanent irrigation footings and redwood boxes. Stark noted that these, and other projects, are due in large part to the support from “our district superintendent Ricardo Chavez, along with Principal Jason Furtado who provided the green light on hiring a fourth ag teacher for this past year, starting the internship program and investing in the Food Science pathway.”

Aiding the program will be the purchase of new vans for the department and a new stock trailer.

Helping these projects become reality  are fundraisers such as “our annual November drive-thru BBQ and a Cookie Dough fundraiser when school starts,” Stark said, adding that the fundraisers help with the costs of the school farm which houses swine, sheep, goats and poultry. “We also have a newer greenhouse, garden boxes and a stone fruit orchard.”

FFA accomplishments included the State Champion Food Science team that will compete at the Nationals in the fall, the Poultry team finished second in the state and Ag Pest was third in the state. Stark added, “Molly Terpstra and Gracie Bracco are seniors that have won state FFA and National FFA scholarships as well as many awards this past fall.”

Escalon boasts a new food science lab, and course pathways in Ag Mechanics, Food Science, Animal Science, Floral Design and Ag Science.

Stark said the Escalon FFA Parent Boosters are an important asset to the program and that “funding is received through Career Technical Education, Perkins, Ag Incentive Strong Workforce and Specialized Secondary Program grants.”

Lathrop High School

The major projects at Lathrop High come from an ag student body of 313. We had “50 students more than last year,” said ag instructor Danelle Ariaz who, along with associate Angie Bottarini, helps the students make the most of their market pigs and turkeys destined for sale at the San Joaquin County Fair.

Other major projects included floral arrangements for weddings and special occasions. Monthly flora subscription (arrangement) for those subscribe to receive the monthly arrangements.

“Principal Greg Leland and Vice Principal Melissa Beattie have been instrumental to our success with their support,” Ariaz commented.

College aligned classes include UC/CSU electives Intro to Ag Mechanics, Ag Science, Ag Welding and Advanced Ag Welding. UC/CSU fine art encompasses Ag Wood, Advanced Ag Wood, Art & History of Floral and Advanced Floral.

Add UC/CSU Laboratory Science, Animal Science and Animal Care and the students are well served.

Arias said, “Our campus projects include gardens, greenhouses, school farm with year-round breeding sheep, goat and rabbit breeding projects. Our Floral and Ag Wood classes are of particular interest to students.”

Helping the courses in the shop and classroom include a new wood laser and a new vinyl printer. The school farm goats raised by the students are winning their classes at many different county fairs. Arias said, “This year we’ve sold goats to schools attending county fairs. Our goats are competing well against many well-known breeders in the state. And our sheep are making progress each year.”

“We just attended an AI clinic where we had 11 animals AI’d to get outside powerful genetics,” Arias said. “Our students got to see how the process happens and even got to look through the laparoscopic microscope.”

Lathrop High had two State FFA Degree Recipients and 18 students who have completed a pathway (three courses focused in one area).

She explained that growth presents challenges: “One teacher with both preparation periods filled with Ag Welding classes. All Lathrop High courses offered are full with student enrollment.”

Arias said, “This is the second year the Manteca Unified School District has covered the class costs. Teachers no longer have to fundraise just to teach their courses. This is an amazing change from the past 30 years.”

She said, “For example our floral class used to get $5,000 for three classes which doesn’t even cover one project for each class. Now, we have a budget just over $10,000 and we have more time to focus on projects to work on student’s skill instead of just events that come in. It’s such a blessing.

Linden High School

Close to half of Linden High School’s student body are among the 426 ag students, said Christopher Lemos who teaches ag with Natalie Stevano, Jana Colombini and Travis Gonsalves.

“We also had two student teachers, Stephanie Navarrete and Lauren Glomson,” Lemos said.

Department wide, “We are moving forward with the expansion of our school farm with the addition of an animal unit,” he said. “During this school year we completed the handicapped access and driveway portion and will be building the main barn this summer.”

With this level of activity, it’s appropriate the district has supported “us by allowing us to seek and use grants to build the animal unit for the school farm along with making sure we have the funds needed to run a quality program,” Lemos said.

All of Linden’s agriscience classes are college preparatory and the school has a number of ongoing articulation agreements with local community colleges. A number of agriculture mechanics classes are both UC/CSU approved for fine art credit with the Agribusiness Management class a UC approved elective.

New equipment has arrived with the purchase of a compact tractor that will be used for the school farm expansion. Also in the planning stage is acquiring a set of microscopes for the ag science classes.

Linden’s Farm to Fork event sponsored by the AG Boosters was, said Lemos, “A great success. Funds from the event will be used for school farm expenses along with other department needs.”

Those needs may come from growing grapes and walnuts and running the two active greenhouses and a shade yard for horticulture plants.

“This year we had three American Degree recipients and 10 State Degree recipients,” Lemos said. “One of our students was the state winner for the ag education proficiency award; we also had the state champion ag sales team. This is the first state champion team Linden has had that we’re aware of.”

The program benefits from receiving Agriculture Incentive Grants, Career Technical Education Incentive Grants and Perkins.

Importantly, Lemos said Linden’s ag program “is very lucky to have a supportive community. The most noteworthy support has come from our new boosters club which is now in full swing.”

Lodi High School

Lodi’s ag program – taught by Brent Newport, Alyssa Oberle and Kim Schmierer – has 315 students who, according to Newport, “Benefit from continued administration and district support with 80% of our ag classes being college aligned.”

He said the teachers are working on updating equipment in the next school year, the process helped by funds raised by an annual crab feed on the last Saturday in January. The multi-use school farm grows a host of vines, trees and livestock feed.

Newport explained that over the past school year, Lodi’s Ag FFA program boasts three state degree recipients, three proficiency winners and three American Degree applicants. “We had Floral and Welding teams at state finals and also had Horse and Veg Crop teams compete at some field days along with other students competing in the sectional speech contest.”

Course pathways consist of Agriscience, Floriculture and Ag Mechanics. “All the programs benefited from the support of our Ag Boosters group,” he said.

Lodi High hosted its second Farm Power contests during the past school year.

Merrill F. West High School

With 710 students “in the chapter for the school year” the five teachers were definitely needed, said one of them, Marlene Hepner. Her colleagues are Abigail Ferrell, Audrianna Farmer, Taylor Myers and Kari Magniez.

Major projects at West during the past school year included being “poised for some construction…in our Agriculture Garden Research and SAE area.” Hepner continued, “Stay tuned for details about the new animal enclosures and Agriculture Mechanics and Garden spaces.”

She said the school is “incredibly blessed to have amazing support at the site and management levels, including from the Facility and CTE Directors.” And they are excited to “have a new principal and an additional ag teacher join our ranks.”

All of this administrative support resulted in hosting more of the Delta Valley Sectional events at West.

Courses meeting college requirement include Ag Biology, Ag Chemistry and Ag Physics, Integrated Animal Science and Advanced Animal Science. “Floral is a fine art requirement,” Hepner said, “And we’ve added Ag Food Systems 2 for the upcoming school year.”

West received a grant that allowed the purchase of multiple items, including those for Ag Mechanics, additional hand tools, a virtual welder and a laser engraver.

An annual Tri Tip Dinner and a yearly See’s Candy sale, along with Poinsettia and Easter Lily fundraisers helped with the costs of improving the school farm’s three new animal enclosures for AgFest projects.

In FFA competitions, Ema Perry represented West at the state level Impromptu Speaking contest; judging teams were fielded in Ag Sales, Poultry and Horse Judging, Ag Pest Control and Nursery/Landscape. Danny Vargas and Peyton DeCoite were elected section president and sentinel, respectively; Jocelyn Silveira participated in the Sacramento Leadership Experience among only 75 seniors chosen statewide.

Course pathways included agriscience Animal Science, Ag Mechanics and Floriculture with the Food Science pathway completed in the next school year.

“We held our degree night and banquet in person with advisory members, school staff and parents attending,” Hepner said. “Also, Tracy Unified and West High CTE received special funding for program promotion.” She also said, “Ag Ed in California is a growing number of new teachers excited to make a difference, work hard and lead in our ranks with ideas and enthusiasm.”

Hepner added, “We work hard to provide…all of our students [with] a wide variety of activities and opportunities for learning. And we are ever thankful for our industry partners who’ve shared their needs and ideas for getting more of our students into high demand and high paying careers and that is AWESOME!”

Ripon High School

281 students comprise the population of Ripon’s ag program and instructors Sherry Johns, Celeste Morino, Danielle Hyatt and Bulmaro Bribiesca deliver the agricultural goods.

“Counseling conducted at our Career Fair and businesses in the area invited to participate,” Johns explained. “A total of 125 students within the Agriculture Pathways participated. Feedback was very good among students who participated.”                

Activities around campus included replanting of almonds on school farm orchard and completing new tables for the remodeled greenhouse that received new siding and roof.

Seventh and eighth grade learning modules were conducted at feeder schools in the school district. “This allows us to expose them to the four pathways offered at the high school,” Johns said.

At the high school level, the fundraiser Cows, Carbs and Cocktails Dinner was held for the first time since COVID and it was a success with more than $10,000 raised for the FFA program. Fireworks sales have led to more than $10,000 that will be applied to the FFA leadership components.

The school farm section nicknamed the Mare Motel will be converted to accommodate beef projects and the number of projects housed at the farm has increased the size of the steer, dairy, hogs and sheep sections.

Students have been active with 75 participating in AgFest, four receiving American Degrees, 15 receiving State Degrees, four Sectional Proficiency winners and 33 members attending the National FFA convention.

Johns noted the outstanding students in the program: Maryn Brenner, Dawson Donich, Madison Hendley and Alyssa Donich.

“We’ve broken ground on the new Career Technical Education Building slated to house the Power Mechanics shop and three classrooms on the ground floor with classrooms and the commercial kitchen for the Plant and Soil Science Pathway on the second,” Johns said.

“We are fortunate to have the parent and community support that are instrumental in supporting our fundraisers, sponsoring student’s projects for AgFest or Ag Fabrication projects or by purchasing animals at AgFest,” Johns said. “We have five course pathways and we’ve applied for and received a number of grants.”

Ripon Christian High School

With 113 students in the program, instructors Megan Dyk and Cherise Duncan aren’t concerned about its efficacy because, said Dyk, “The ag program is well supported by the administration and school board and we continue to lease an 11-acre walnut orchard from the City of Ripon and are blessed with the support of local farmer Chris Van Groningen as our manager.”

Dyk also explained that parents are always supportive of the program, “helping out whenever needed whether it be helping with coaching competition teams or driving students to and from contests and conventions.”

According to Dyk, the school board approved the purchase of a greenhouse and funds have been raised to support the project. “We look forward to the installation of the greenhouse sometime early in the 2023-24 school year.

New classes initiated this year are Art and History of Floral Design, which satisfies the art credit requirement for graduation as well as exposes students to Career Technical Education. “This year we designed flowers for more than 20 events within the community and had an outpouring of positive support,” Dyk said.

She explained equipment making an appearance during the past school year consisted of a plasma cutter CNC machine and a Piranha metal shear which has enabled student’s access to a wider variety of projects and broadened their skill set.

Fundraisers contributing to the financial aspects of ag learning was the return of the annual Christmas tree lot from which 100 were sold along with wreaths and student projects. “We also provided a babysitting night to our families, a school snack bar for our student body and took on large floral events,” Dyk explained.

Regarding the school farm, the facility is set up for pigs and currently is being expanded for students to raise beef animals. A wash rack and a tie up for cattle were added. Dyk said the facility is designed for “families who don’t otherwise have the space to raise their animals at home, is located off campus in Ripon.”

In FFA competition Ripon Christian’s horse judging team finished in third place overall in the National Contest. Team members included Annelies and Helia Vander Meulen, Megan Kroon, Kenzie Hoekstra, all coached by Becky Hoekstra.

Teams finishing in the top five for state included Horse, Dairy Cattle, Floriculture and Farm Power; 33 animal projects were exhibited at AgFest.

Outstanding students were: Shelby Terra, Skylar Van Laar, Kenzie Heokstra, Ava Buwalda, Ellie Dyt, Katie VanUnen, Joel Van Groningen, and Madison Van Laar.

Course pathways include Ag Mechanics, Plant Science or Animal Science.

Manteca High School

370 Manteca High School students benefited from ag instructors Amanda Martinez, Ryan Coggins, Chris Livengood and Heather Nolan on major projects such as the Advanced Welding students making a new BBQ trailer for the ag department.

“We have strong school administration support where we are part of the school strategic plan to have a new woodshop built,” Martinez said. “The vision is to add another agriculture teacher. Regarding district support, we have the most funding our program has ever had. There is a value in agriculture education and the funding shows that.”

All science and woodshop classes are aligned with A-G standards which help students get into colleges in California. Students can also take woodshop to receive math credits to help them graduate.

A new freshman class is Intro to Ag Mechanics and Ag Construction has   been added as a capstone class wherein students will spend a semester in woodshop and a semester in metal shop students will take their advanced skills for special projects.

“We’ve received new equipment for our planned woodshop and new CNC machines,” Martinez said, adding the fundraisers that help pay for them: a drive-thru BBQ’s in the fall and spring; football concessions; caramel apples, floral design sales and a spring greenhouse plant sale. . “We also have a crab feed scheduled for January 2024.”

Manteca’s FFA performances were outstanding with Camila Torres leading the way in speaking contests as the outstanding freshman; Maeson Watson-outstanding Greenhand, Adisyn Allen-Outstanding Chapter, Alyssa Baker-Outstanding overall member.

“We have the following pathways: Ag Wood, Ag Mechanics,   Floriculture and Animal Science,” Martinez said.

“Parent and community support includes the parent group Friends of Manteca FFA which raises thousands of dollars to help the students of our program,” Martinez said.

Tokay High School

With 430 students participating in the Tokay ag program, Rebecca Freeman said, “The teachers were increased to four.”

Building a swine facility on the school farm, along with a 120’ by 90’ barn with a show ring were major projects built with the help of support from the new principal, Enrique Avalos, who “has been extremely supportive of the ag program, Freeman said. “Our district and CTE administrations are also very supportive. We have an amazing Ag booster group of parents that area huge help and we’ve received a lot of support from STEIG and the K12 Strong Work Force Grant.”

In addition to the farm improvements already noted, Freeman said, “We’ve been building 16 new raised beds for the farm. We’ve also purchased a new livestock trailer and several new pieces of shop equipment.

The ever-present fundraisers included an annual crab feed sponsored by the Tokay FFA Ag Boosters which helps support the chapter throughout the year. The two-acre school farm provides a great opportunity for students who live in town to raise animals for AgFest.

“We also have a poultry co-op, which is a student-run operation,” explained Freeman.

The Tokay program has several courses that are UC/CSU approved and offers class pathways in Agriscience, Ornamental Horticulture and Ag Mechanics.

Tokay’s teams placed in state competitions: 2nd in Grapevine Pruning and 3rd in Grapevine Pruning judging; 4th in Fruit Tree Pruning; 7th in Ag Welding; 13th in Floriculture and 15th in Vet Science.

Freeman said, “We had four students earn State FFA Degrees this year and have two American Degrees for this year’s National Convention.”

Tracy High School

587 students – approximately one-third of the student body – occupy the extensive Ag and FFA programs at Tracy High where Ag Department Chair Pat Rooney, Yesenia Huerta (FFA Advisor), Jason Gentry, Francesca Carrillo and new teacher Paige Henry (starting in the 2023-2024 school year) ply their educational trade.

“We’re in the process of rebuilding our fence around the ag area,” Rooney said. “Also we are remodeling the housing area for the animals on our school farm.”

“Very active counselors at our school who always send a representative to all of our FFA events,” Rooney said.

Rooney pointed out that all of Tracy’s courses meet college requirements for SCU/UC credit and the welding course is articulated with Delta College, Modesto Junior College and Las Positas.

The school has five goats on the school farm along with 20 chickens that are part of a campus egg laying project. The school garden where a variety of winter vegetables including broccoli, Brussels sprouts, Swiss chard and fava beans are grown.

Rooney said next school year Tracy High will again offer a Meat Processing class. This class hasn’t had enough students for enrollment the past four years. There is only one other Meat Processing class in the state taught at the high school level.

Supply chain issues delayed the delivery of the new John Deere tractor, ag truck and school van, all of which have been received. It is expected that more new equipment for the welding, woodshop, floral and meats lab classes will arrive for the next school year.

“We were able to host an in-person crab feed dinner for the first time in three years and it was the most profitable dinner we’ve ever had,” Rooney said. “Also did an online fundraiser and it too generated a lot of money for our program.”

All of this is aided by great community and parent support which is augmented by applications for CTEIG and AIG grant financial assistance.

“Our program is continuously growing. One of our ag teaching positions this year was unfilled and students had a long term substitute in the class all year,” Rooney explained. “Hopefully we’ll be able to fill any vacancies in the future with a qualified applicant.”

Commenting on the state condition, he said there were quite a few vacancies in ag teaching programs throughout California this past year and more are expected next year. “I think as FFA programs continue to grow and expand in the middle schools we will continue to see ag teaching openings stay vacant.”

Weston Ranch High School

Natalie Gutierrez and Ruel Celeste teach ag to 183 students; Gutierrez pointed out the major projects from Weston Ranch students that included a steer for AgFest, 13 showing meat birds, a smoker build by metal shop students, dog houses from wood shop, floral arrangements for various events contributed by Floral classes.

“We’re always getting lots of support from our administrators, Aracely Sandoval, Troy Fast, Marcelo Zamaripa and Aviette Brooks,” Gutierrez said. “We also get support from Clara Schmiedt and Amanda Peters.”

This year Weston Ranch received teaching resources that helped students get the hands-on experience such as giving shots, ear tagging, ear notching and more.

To help fund such activities, dollars were generated by selling tri-tip sandwiches at football games, burgers at track meets, candy gram sales and holiday flower arrangement sales, and selling mechanical projects. Candy sales also aided the fund raising.

Weston Ranch had more than 20 students earn green hand degrees; 7 received their chapter degrees; gold was their reward in opening and closing competition; the poultry team gained a third place.

Gutierrez listed their outstanding students: Angel Gomez Pena who took what he learned in welding shop and earned a job in the welding industry. Tiffany Shatz was named Chapter Farmer due to her long hours and dedication to her animals.

“We currently have a Mechanics and Animal Science pathway,” Gutierrez said.