In late February, Ukiah High School Future Farmers of America (FFA) members took the top five awards at the Cloverdale Citrus Fair for rabbit showmanship, and then earned top marks at the FFA Mendo-Lake Sectional Speaking Contest, paving the way for them to compete at the North Coast Regional Speech Competition on March 24.
Although this is her first year at Ukiah High School (UHS), agriculture teacher and FFA advisor Sadie DeMarta is an experienced teacher and advisor and she is reenergizing Ukiah’s FFA program. She teaches Sustainable Agriculture, a college-prep life sciences course that provides an alternative to Biology; and Soil Chemistry, a college-prep physical sciences course that provides an alternative to Chemistry. She also teaches Veterinary Science and Horticulture. DeMarta, a Ukiah High graduate, took over for Eric Crawford who recently became the Career Technical Education (CTE) director.
The UHS agriculture program uses a five-acre ranch/farm behind the school campus for a whole host of activities. It grows grapes in a vineyard and sells them locally to Fetzer Vineyards. It is currently growing lettuce in the an aquaponics system, a system that combines aquaculture (raising fish) and hydroponics (the soil-less growing of plants) so fish and plants blend in one integrated system. It has two greenhouses where seeds have just been planted in preparation for a plant sale at Rainbow Ag in May. And it has animals: a horse, pony, pygmy goats and rabbits, so students can learn animal husbandry, care and grooming, handling, and animal anatomy. The students are currently in the process of becoming a certified organic ranch.
All 154 UHS agriculture students are required to participate in FFA. In fact, a small part of their grade depends on their FFA participation, which can include anything from staffing a petting zoo to attending FFA speaking competitions.
“FFA provides students with information about how to raise animals and grow crops, but it also teaches them about leadership and prepares them for the business side of agriculture,” DeMarta said.
She explained that FFA is structured similarly to some sports organizations, in that there are local, regional, state, and national groupings and competitions. Students who achieve locally can go on to participate at higher and higher levels. Several conferences are held each year, including a career show where students can learn more about colleges with ag programs and various ag career options.
Students who choose to fully participate in FFA earn “degrees” as they work toward a final project which includes a minimum of 500 hours and earnings (or an investment) of $2,000. After the first year, students can earn a Greenhand degree. After their second, they can earn a Chapter degree; and after their third, they can earn a State degree, which is the highest level. This year, four UHS students earned their California State degrees: Julie Brown for her beef cattle project, Kayte Bazan for her chicken project, Bella Vance for her horse project, and Kenzi Kornegay for her small animals and market pigs project. Successful projects include record keeping and money management, community service, public speaking, and school involvement in addition to the requirements specific to each project topic (e.g., raising cattle, producing chicken eggs to sell, etc.).
DeMarta said only a small percentage of her students come from families who make a living in agriculture. Most of the students have an interest in animals or farming, but few have any experience before they take DeMarta’s classes.
“I get some 4H kids, but mostly we start from scratch,” she said. “Everyone’s welcome.”
DeMarta said she is very proud of her students’ recent success at the Cloverdale Citrus Fair and the local speaking competition. At the Citrus Fair, five UHS students with no experience showing animals earned first through fifth place for showmanship of the Dutch rabbits they raised. Freshman Karla Benefield, the winner of the novice competition, moved to the overall competition, where she placed sixth.
The following week, students participated in the FFA speech competition. Freshmen are allowed to enter the Creed competition, in which they recite the same memorized essay for the judges. Jake Lyly won first place and Lucy Burris won second. Both will advance to Regionals. Sophomores participate in the impromptu competition, where students prepare answers on several topics and then answer extemporaneously. They also answer questions that could be given during a job interview. Rilley Iversen placed first and will also advance to Regionals.
“The girls worked so hard. They came in at lunch and practiced. They even spent time on the weekends. I’m really proud of them,” DeMarta said.