Lacey Peterson
The Union Democrat

Students throughout the Mother Lode and the country this week are celebrating National FFA week with activities ranging from the academic to fundraisers and petting zoos.

Tuesday, as Sonora High students quizzed each other on agriculture trivia, students at Bret Harte High School in Angels Camp were entertained as one teacher or staff member who raised the most money for charity kissed a ceremonial pig at lunch in the school quad. The teacher's name was not available at presstime.

Today, Bret Harte students will host a petting zoo for local kindergarten and first-grade students, and Friday, the schooling continues when agriculture students give mini-lessons to other Bret Harte students about the opportunities offered in ag classes.

The week will end with barbecues and for Sonora High, a fundraiser New York steak dinner at the Elks Lodge.

Although many people are not aware, "agriculture is a part of every

day life," explained Sonora High FFA Chapter Vice-President, junior

Kelly McEwen, 16, of Sonora.

"Students in FFA realize this and they help promote agriculture," she said.

Classmate, FFA Chapter Secretary senior Grant Kutch, 18, of

Jamestown, said he joined FFA and took ag classes because he was

interested in the broad field of agriculture. He's taken ag mechanics,

learned animal sciences, agricultural sciences and is enrolled in the

ROP (Regional Occupational Program) Welding Certification program.

His course of study means he can skip two classes at junior colleges in welding, teacher Stan Kellogg said.

"I plan to make some sort of career out of working with my hands in

the mechanical field," Kutch said, adding that he plans to attend

junior college in the fall.

"It's gotten me more involved in school activities," Kutch said of

the program that takes students on many trips around the region and


He also took a college-level welding course at Butte College through the program.

Depending on the high school program, students compete against

other FFA chapters in the state and nation in areas of public speaking,

ag business knowledge, welding, livestock judging, record keeping,

floriculture and many other areas of agriculture.

McEwen and classmate, FFA Chapter Secretary Bailey Orpurt, 15, of

Jamestown, attend leadership conferences they say are beneficial

because they meet new people and, in the process, learn how to meet new

people, communicate effectively and work together.

"We have to use our social skills and leadership skills to meet new

people," Orpurt said, adding they have to be "grown up" at conferences.

In April ,FFA chapters will attend the state convention in Fresno.

Both students say the program is preparing them for their future careers.

Orpurt raises sheep and heifers, McEwen raises swine and steers,

and to fair they go each year and various livestock judging


Orpurt wants to join Modesto Junior College's livestock judging

teams and McEwen hopes to study to be a veterinarian at U.C. Davis.

Learning about anatomy and animal conformation, among other things,

"gives me a head start," McEwen said. "It gives me the experience to be

around animals."

The program is also beneficial to students who aren't as into academics.

"Not all of them are straight-A students. It gives them experience

for future jobs," McEwen explained. "Not everyone is going to college."

"Along the way, we learn life skills," Orpurt said. "You get leadership skills, technical skills and life skills."

FFA programs stress responsibility, work ethic and leadership, Kellogg said.

He said the program isn't necessarily to train students to become

ranchers and farmers, but to instill awareness and appreciation of

agriculture. Students learn public speaking and leadership skills to be

advocates for agriculture issues.

Like FFA officers who educate other students about state water shortages, which affect everyone, McEwen said.

"I've gotten more confident," Kutch said.

Students log hours spent on jobs, ag projects and community service

with expenses and income statements, which can also be recognized in

FFA competitions.

Students at Bret Harte spend time running greenhouse, rabbit and

chicken cooperatives and FFA students in the region routinely

participate in Occupational Olympics held at Columbia College and

across the state. Summerville High recently added an advanced

floriculture course to its program of study.

1959 Sonora High graduate and cattle rancher Jack Gardella, of

Jamestown, said he signed up for agriculture because, coming from

ranching family, wanted to be a cattle rancher.

"So I did learn there," the former FFA chapter treasurer said."Joe Firebaugh was the teacher. He helped me a lot."

Gardella traveled and learned about public speaking, but also

learned to weld and lay out a corral, skills he used later in life.

"It was beneficial to me and I'm glad I went through the program," he said.

Stent resident Ben McRae, was FFA president in 1964-1965 and also earned his FFA State Degree, according to yearbooks.

He went on to work in the county roads department but ran cattle and sheep at his home ranch.

He remembers participating in parliamentary procedure and livestock

judging contests. He, too, learned to weld in the program.

McRae said the travel in the program enabled him to meet students

from areas with more agricultural diversity, in terms of crops.

McRae said his three daughter also went through the FFA program and

all pursued educations in agriculture related fields - forestry, animal

science and beef genetics.

"If you're interested in it you're going to learn about it," he said.

"You meet a lot of people from different walks of life and you

learn experiences from them … Agriculture is so diversified," McRae

said, adding how students even learn about banking and farm loans.

About 500 students participate in FFA programs in Tuolumne and

Calaveras counties, and Don Pedro High School recently applied for a


There are more than 500,000 students in FFA in the United States, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

Contact Lacey Peterson at or 588-4529.