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 lambs and chickens, 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 Sonoma Valley High 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-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 Sonoma Valley High School (SVHS) in Sonoma and Petaluma High School (PHS) in Petaluma, students can take classes in a variety of areas—from agricultural sciences and floral design to welding and electrical work—and still earn a high school diploma.
Felicia Rush, SVHS agricultural educator and FFA advisor, says that agricultural science classes cover different territory than traditional biology and chemistry classes, but are just as rigorous.
“We don’t talk about human bodies; we talk about livestock bodies. We talk about plant anatomy; we talk about photosynthesis. [Our approach] is a little different…but [students] still get the same course credit for college admission,” Rush explains.
Most agricultural educators’ approach to classroom education is decidedly hands-on. For instance, in agricultural biology, students may dissect a goat or watch cows being immunized. Meanwhile, in agricultural mechanics, students may wire a mock electrical board or put fire to metal as they learn various kinds of welding techniques.
Besides taking classes, one of the most important ways FFA students learn is through their SAE projects.
“[They] can be anything from redoing the landscaping of [the] family’s house [to] raising a steer to go to the Sonoma County Fair. We have had students volunteer at Pets Lifeline [an animal shelter] in Sonoma. We have kids that work at the feed store in town. They can do anything they want to as long as it relates to agriculture,” Rush says.
At SVHS, kids can work on metal projects in the campus shop, raise livestock on the school’s farm, cultivate flowers and vegetables in the campus greenhouse, or, starting next year, tend grapevines in the school’s vineyard.
Shafer is particularly excited about the latter, which is part of the new viticulture program at SVHS.
“I’ve been really looking forward to it. This is going to be a real good class for [helping] us to understand what our entire economy is built on here in Sonoma. It’s nice because we are surrounded by all these wineries and the vineyard life, and now we actually [are going to] get a hands-on experience. It’s going to be very interesting,” Shafer says.
The residential environment of PHS doesn’t allow for an on-campus farm, but students’ families and community members often provide places to keep animals, as well as other resources.
“We have a student whose uncle put in a vineyard out behind his house, so this student built a net device…to put over the grapes to prevent the birds from eating [them],” Arntz says.
A unique feature of PHS is its Petaluma Wildlife and Natural Science Museum, part of the school’s natural resources management program.
“We have a really large collection of taxidermy animals from all over the world—you name it, we probably have it. There is a room that is dedicated fully to Africa…[and one] dedicated to North America. We [also] have a decent-sized living collection of reptiles and amphibians,” Arntz explains.
Since community service can be part of an SAE project, students volunteer at the museum over the summer and on the weekends, and eventually work there as docents.
Whatever they choose to pursue, FFA encourages students to make money from their projects. Kids are invited to get creative with their ventures, too. For instance, if they don’t have a place to raise livestock, but like small animals, they could start dog-walking businesses. Or if they like cosmetics, they could make and sell lip balm from the lavender and mint that they’ve grown, Rush says.
Kids are responsible for funding their own projects, which, if they involve livestock, can require a substantial investment. To help cover their expenses, some students take out no-interest loans from American AgCredit, which has branches in Petaluma and Santa Rosa. Kids usually make enough to pay back the loans when they show and sell their animals at the Sonoma County Fair, Arntz says. One local teacher’s son sold his 1,300-pound steer for $6 a pound—a whopping $7,800.
That kind of dough may sound like a lot for a kid, but students work many months for the money they earn, FFA advisors say. Shafer, for example, tended to his lamb every day, morning and night, throughout his entire summer.
“It takes a lot,” he says.
As students acquire knowledge and skills from their projects and classes, they test what they have learned at competitive field days. Held at state and community colleges, these contests 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 examples, 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 about 160 plants and 70 materials and tools.
As part of the public speaking component of the contests, students are asked to complete a range of tasks, from giving impromptu two- to three-minute 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 thanks to FFA. Arntz chokes up talking about the complete transformation of one of her special needs students.
“He had a really hard time expressing himself when speaking and would often look at the floor,” she recounts. But after his time in FFA, “public speaking became a thing that he was good at, and [taught] to other kids,” Arntz says.
The student eventually decided he wanted to pursue the prestigious American FFA Degree.
“In an organization of more than 600,000 kids nationwide, less than 1 percent of the membership receives [the degree],” Arntz explains.
Students who obtain the degree must complete 50 community service hours over 3 years and either invest $7,500 into, or earn $10,000 from, their FFA projects, Arntz says.
“[L]ast October, I watched him walk across the stage and get his American Degree in front of an auditorium of 50,000 kids, parents, and other adults. It was one of the best days ever. To watch a student grow and want something so badly, and then finally get it, is a big deal,” Arntz says.
Rush says her students make major shifts, too. “We’ve got a lot of kids [who] I would say…didn’t really have a direction. They didn’t know what they wanted to do, but they found their passion in ag,” she says.
Shafer can relate: “I would be lost [without the FFA]. I wouldn’t have any drive to accomplish anything,” he shares. “FFA has given me the sense to actually go out and accomplish something I didn’t think I could.”
So it seems while FFA students are busy learning how to dissect goats and turn a profit raising steer, they are also discovering something of even greater value: how to be more fully themselves.