By Melissa Chianta
Sixteen-year-old Paul Shafer was an introverted eighth grader when he first found out about Future Farmers of America (FFA). Some FFA students came to his science class to talk about what it was like to study agriculture, and it piqued his interest.
Over the next couple of years, he found himself raising and selling livestock, and even speaking about agriculture in front of groups of people. Now an incoming senior, Shafer has shed his shyness and is the president of his local school's chapter of FFA.
"FFA really forced me out of my shell. I never really thought it would have such a great impact...on my life. It is such a big and important part of myself," he reflects.
A state- and district-funded national program formed in the 1920s, FFA has a three-pronged approach to agricultural--or "ag"--education: classroom lessons, supervised agricultural experiences (SAE), and leadership activities, including public speaking and skills competitions.
At Middletown High School in Middletown, students can take classes in a variety of areas--from agricultural science and floral design to viticulture, landscaping, and welding--and still earn a high school diploma.
"I teach them science from an ag perspective, so if we are doing biology, it's ag biology. We still meet the same standards; we just do it from a different perspective. But we are just as rigorous," says Patsy Pachie, a longtime agricultural instructor at Middletown High School.
Like many agricultural educators, Pachie's approach to teaching is decidedly hands-on.
"The first day of science this year we were cutting open a goat who died with four babies inside of her. I just put the goat in front of them and said, 'Hey this is real world. We've got to figure out what happened,'" she explains.
Pachie finds her approach captures students' attention and helps them retain information. "I've got kids who...say, 'Oh my God, I remember when...!' and we get a real good chuckle about it. But they remember stuff that we do. To me that's worth its weight in gold," she says.
Besides taking classes, one of the most important ways FFA students learn is through their SAE projects, which can involve anything from growing plants to starting a small business. Kids can raise hogs, cows, goats, and ewes on the school's farm, cultivate flowers and vegetables in the campus greenhouse, or tend to grapevines in the school's vineyard.
Whatever they choose to pursue, FFA encourages kids to make money from their work.
"If they like small animals, they can do a dog-walking business. They can start a landscaping business. My son started being a beekeeper," says Karen Jones, another agricultural instructor at Middletown High School.
Students are responsible for funding their own projects, which, if they are raising livestock, can require a substantial investment. If children and their families don't have the resources to purchase an animal, Pachie directs them to Ukiah's American AgCredit, which offers no-interest loans.
"They will loan the kids a certain amount--like a start up--to help them purchase the animal, and [the kids] will have enough left over to pay for feed. When [the students] sell their animals at the county fair, then they pay back their loans, and whatever profit comes from that goes into their pockets," Pachie says.
Last year, her son received $6 a pound for his 1,300-pound steer. "That's over $7,000," she enthuses.
That may sound like a lot of dough for a kid, but students work many months for the money they earn, Pachie says. Shafer, for example, spent his entire summer with his animals, tending to them morning and night.
"It takes a lot," he says.
And sometimes, things don't always go as planned.
"We had...a freshman this year [who] wanted to raise a steer for the fair. Three months after he got [him], the steer got himself trapped under a panel, and we wound up having to put [him] down. And by this time, the kid had over $3,200 invested in the calf," she recalls.
Pachie didn't want the student to be discouraged, so she brainstormed ways to turn lemons into lemonade.
"We wound up processing the calf, and the kid sold it to people in the community. He actually came out ahead. He replaced his calf with another one and still had money to play with," she says.
Always looking for a teachable moment, Pachie used the student's experience to educate the rest of her kids about the highs and lows of agribusiness. "We talked about how...farming is a crapshoot. And you've got to hope for the best and plan for the worst. Sometimes it all works out and sometimes, you know, you hit a gutter ball," she explains.
As students learn through classroom and project experiences, they get opportunities to put their knowledge to the test. Competitive field days held at state and community colleges evaluate student skills in a variety of areas--from floriculture and farm business management to veterinary science and grapevine cultivation. The contests are as rigorous as the rest of the students' education. For instance, the ag mechanics team has to know the names and uses of more than 500 tools and materials while the floral design team has to know 160 plants and about 70 tools.
As part of the public speaking component of the contests, students are asked to complete a range of tasks, from giving two- to three-minute impromptu speeches on, say, the pros and cons of organic versus nonorganic farming, to preparing and giving one-hour speeches they've written and submitted for grading.
For Shafer, the field days, and public speaking contests in particular, have been an empowering experience. "Expressing myself and meeting all these new people and going to all of these conferences...is what I needed to really grow and become the person I am today," he shares.
Shafer isn't the only student who has found his voice through FFA. Many kids, especially those who don't do well in a regular classroom setting, thrive in agricultural classes.
Jones holds back tears when she talks about the transformation of one of her students.
"He had "squirrelitis"--it didn't take much to get [his] attention so [he got] sidetracked pretty easily. Grades [were] hard for him," she recalls.
But he diligently applied himself, and by his senior year was the manager of the school's vineyard. This year, he is graduating from the highly reputable welding program at Butte College in Oroville and preparing to go through a PG&E training program.
"He is just a wonderful kid, the first in his family to go to college. We're really proud of him. He beat the odds," she reflects.
Pachie remembers another student who struggled with dyslexia and a challenging family background.
"He had spent his entire life being told he couldn't do things. [But] he came into our program and just blossomed," she recalls. He loved it so much that he wanted to be an agricultural teacher himself, so he went to a local junior college to get his associate's degree. He eventually hopes to go to Chico State for his teaching credential.
"I'll tell you when he finally becomes a teacher, he's going to be phenomenal. He connects with the kids so well, and we keep telling him, 'You can do this,'" she says.
The accomplishments of both Pachie's and Jones's students exemplify what Jones hopes agricultural education provides young learners.
"My goal is to connect these kids with something they can use for the rest of their lives and maybe open up a couple of doors or windows so that they can see what is available to them," Jones asserts.
She knows students like her Butte College graduate and Pachie's up-and-coming ag teacher may have given up on themselves if they had not discovered their strengths in the FFA program. And so may have Shafer, who says he would be "lost" without FFA.
It seems that while Pachie, Jones, and their colleagues have been busy teaching their students how to be agricultural scientists, florists, welders, and vineyard managers, these teens have been learning something even more valuable: how to be more fully themselves.