A bright future
Sept./Oct. 2013 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Christine Souza
Photos by Tom Underhill and Richard Green
FFA programs inspire students to pursue careers
More online: Blue Jacket Bonanza Program
"What do you want to be when you grow up?" For 85 years, the Future Farmers of America (now known as the National FFA Organization) has helped high school students discover the answer to that life-shaping question by encouraging them, through classroom and hands-on education in agriculture and leadership, to pursue a career path.
Sunny Franklin and Michaela Negrete, members of the Fullerton Union High School FFA chapter, examine a hydroponic trellis system for growing strawberries during a field trip to Cal Poly, Pomona.
Through local FFA chapters, such as the one at Fullerton Union High School in Orange County, students from all backgrounds learn that their futures could be very bright. The program offers increasing appeal among urban and suburban students who did not grow up on a farm or who never saw a farm animal.
"I enrolled in agriculture because I thought it would be fun. I saw that you could work with live animals rather than just working with books," said senior Emma Guzman, who has been involved in FFA since her freshman year and has narrowed her career choices down to a few. "I'm interested in agribusiness, like advertising and marketing. I'm an artist as well, so I would like to be able to create designs for agricultural businesses, such as the California milk label."
The FFA program at Fullerton Union High School is quite popular with the rest of the student body, too, said Jenny Kuhns, the school's FFA advisor and a teacher for its Agri-Science Academy, which has a 2 1/2-acre farm where students raise pigs and sheep. "Our classes fill up and I think it is due to word of mouth. ... I have entire families where we see every single sibling." Kuhns said that her chapter boasts about 390 members, or one-fifth of the entire student body.
David Anzueto of Fullerton Union FFA learns about the Arabian horse-breeding facility on the Cal Poly, Pomona, campus.
"We go to all kinds of colleges to compete, and they get to see the agricultural colleges around the state that they never would have otherwise," Kuhns said. Thanks to funding from an agricultural leadership program, her FFA students recently took a field trip to Cal Poly, Pomona, where they learned about careers in agriculture that range from plant or animal science, to agricultural business and food industry management. They got hands-on training during the trip—at the school's citrus groves, packinghouse and horse center—and also had an opportunity to shop at the campus farm store.
'FFA has changed my life'
In another Orange County school, the FFA program is also "alive and strong," with 225 students enrolled, according to E. Dave Eusantos, Westminster High School agriculture teacher and FFA advisor. "These are all urbanized kids who haven't seen a pig, ever—except for maybe in a children's book."
Fullerton Union FFA students Madison Gonzalez, Emma Guzman and Jenny Matti spend time in the barn at their school's agriculture department.
Students who take agriculture classes are automatically enrolled in the school's FFA chapter. "We have to make the classes interesting and fun, and cater to the needs of the students, such as offering agricultural science, which gives them credit toward graduation," Eusantos said.
Westminster student Christy Ly, a junior, could hardly wait to join FFA. She had been sold on the idea since middle school, when an FFA chapter visited her campus. "It was cool because they brought goats, baby chickens and baby pigs, and I got excited because I just love animals," Ly said. "I insisted to go to Westminster so I could join FFA."
Ly volunteers at the local animal shelter and hopes to get an animal health-care internship at her school. "My dad is glad that I joined FFA because I used to be really shy, and now I'm outgoing and can go up and talk to people," she said. "FFA has changed my life."
Building life skills
According to the National FFA Organization website, there are nearly 600,000 members, ages 12 to 21, who participate in formal agricultural education throughout the 50 states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Community service is a key component of the FFA program, as demonstrated by Westminster High School students. Ricardo Cervantes, above, and Christy Ly, below, spruce up the grounds at Westminster Historical Society.
In addition to promoting careers in agriculture, FFA also aims to teach leadership skills and help students with personal growth. Their motto is: "Learning to Do, Doing to Learn, Earning to Live, Living to Serve."
"FFA has helped teach me how to handle multiple responsibilities and be more personable, not to be afraid to speak in public and just be more opened up," Fullerton High's Guzman said. "As an urban kid, being in a new environment such as being around animals, yeah, it's a transition, but one you can easily adjust to."
Her teacher, Kuhns, said that students who take part in the school's FFA program walk away with self-worth and confidence: "They push themselves past what the typical high school kid does with the public speaking, with the competitions and with the time commitment."
Another rewarding aspect, she said, is the opportunity for students to raise animals for the fairs. "It just really brings a great sense of pride for our community. It is especially hard to bring a larger, highly populated community to feel a closeness and connection," Kuhns said. "So a program like this really does bring people together."
Ricardo Cervantes, a Westminster FFA student, said that through his work with project animals, he has developed an interest in a veterinary career. He would like to "work my way up, from small animals to larger animals," and is thinking about attending Cal Poly, Pomona.
For the instructors, the goal is not to teach FFA students how to be farmers, but to appreciate farming.
"I want them to have an understanding of agriculture so that when they sit down to eat, they understand where their food comes from and how much work it takes to get their food in front of them," Eusantos said. "And if they are able to get a job in agriculture, that's just sugar on the top."
'My place on the team'
Santa Maria High School FFA member Jorge Rivera says his involvement in the organization has helped turn his life around.
Jorge Rivera wanted to drop out of school when he was a freshman at Santa Maria High School. But he decided to hang in there after a counselor suggested he join the school's Future Farmers of America chapter.
"I was having a lot of problems, hanging out with the wrong people, misbehaving, not going to school. I tried to be in FFA at the same time, but was teased by my friends," said Rivera, now a senior. "My guidance tech showed me that when I was involved in FFA, my grades and attendance would go up, and that's when I realized I had something I wanted to do in school."
Rivera joined the FFA Farm Power team, where agricultural mechanics learn how to repair tractors and other equipment, and enter competitions.
"Now I have a lot of goals I've set for myself," he said. "I want to go to Reedley College and enroll in the diesel mechanics program and do something better with my life."
Rivera was one of the first 15 FFA students to be awarded the organization's signature navy corduroy jacket with gold embroidery as part of the Blue Jacket Bonanza Program started in 2010 by the Santa Barbara County Farm Bureau. The now-nationwide program offers FFA members who can't afford a jacket an opportunity to earn one.
Rivera wrote in his application: "If I receive the jacket, I feel that I will be more part of the FFA. The jacket means a sign of respect to me. It means I have won my place on the team."
Today, Rivera describes the jacket as an esteem builder and said he wears his proudly. He hopes to be an inspiration for others: "My goal is to be there for the people who are like me … and make a change in their lives."