Ag Program Gives Heritage High Students Valuable Experience

From left: Kristin Martin, Cassidy Steenbock and Jade Campbell round up the pigs they will take to a livestock show in Paso Robles on Feb. 15.
Cassidy Steenbock chased her 6-month-old Yorkshire pig, Ziggy, around the pen a couple times before finally guiding her into the show ring.

"I grew up on a horse ranch, so I'm used to working with animals," said the Heritage High School senior. "When I found out we could raise pigs and goats for school projects, I joined right away."

Steenbock is one of more than 600 Heritage High students -- roughly one-fifth of the entire student body -- who participate in the school's agriculture program. Members of the FFA -- formerly known as the Future Farmers of America -- the students take specialized science classes focusing on agriculture and spend hours before and after school tending to farm animals on the school's 2 1/2-acre agriculture facility.

Heritage's agriculture program is the eighth largest in the country, said Jeremiah Perotti, a Heritage High science teacher and one of the program's advisers. The school's budget for the program helps pay FFA fees and for care and maintenance of the animals, but the students do most of the work and earn money to keep the program going through the breeding and sale of the animals.

Students work with a variety of animals, including pigs, goats, rabbits, ducks, geese and chickens. Five students will take pigs to show at the Western Bonanza Livestock Show in Paso Robles on Feb. 15. The same day, other members of the FFA program will be at the Riverside County Fair in Indio, showing rabbits.

"This is the first time we've gone to Paso Robles," Perotti said. "We've done well at the fair, but now we're moving up to the next level. We might get smoked, but it's a reward for the students to go there. They have done a great job."

Perotti said the organization is now referred to only as FFA, dropping the "Farmers" distinction from the title. The reason? FFA now teaches students a lot more than simply farming.

"There's a lot more to it now," he said. "The students learn leadership skills and public speaking. They learn about financial statements and budgets. Like we tell them, a farmer may want to do that for a living, but at the end of the day if you can't feed your family, you go build houses or something else. You have to be prepared for life."

Students who enroll in the program are assigned a list of courses they must take. The things they learn in the classroom are applied in the lab setting. They supervise breeding, attend animal births and work year-round to care for the animals.

"When I first started school here, I heard about this and I thought, 'They raise pigs? Forget it.'" said Jade Campbell. "I live in a housing tract, not on a ranch. But then I saw the baby pigs and they were so cute. I decided to give it a try. Now all of us are like family. We spend a lot of time together here."

Many of the most commmitted students in the program plan to work in animal science or agriculture in some form. Steenbock hopes to return to the school to be an agriculture teacher after college. Kristin Martin plans to go into the Navy after graduation, then start a career in food science or veterinary medicine.

Many of the animals are sold to farmers or members of other FFA groups, but there are always more on the way. More than 40 piglets have been born on site since January.

Perotti said about 1,500 students apply for the program but there are only 200 to 250 new openings each year. As Steenbock says, it sure beats sitting at home and playing video games.

"This is pretty much our life," she said. "We do get really attached to the animals and it's hard to see them leave, but we know what we signed up for. This is what we love to do."

Cassidy Steenbock and Ashley Reilly show off two of the 172 rabbits currently housed at the facility.


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