They sat in an empty classroom at the Tulare high school farm talking embryo transplants, fertilizers and feed the way other kids talk football, cars and rock stars. They'd all seen a friend or neighbor lose their farm, they said, and all knew their parents were worried.
As for them, however, "Heck, I'm not trying to get patriotic or anything," said Kevin Gomes, a June graduate of Tulare Western High School who had just been named the Future Farmers of America's 1985 Star State Farmer for California, "but farmers have seen bad times before. Like the Depression. And everything always gets better. Now we're more efficient. We have things like embryo transplants and computers. . . ."
"Yeah, there's always going to be a need for computers," interrupted Tony Coito, vice president of Tulare Western's FFA, "just as there will always be a need for food. Listen, I've been around dairies all my life. I enjoy it. There's no other job I'd rather do."
Brad Gostanian, 18, knew he was coming on like the town rebel and he rather liked it. All the little kids--fourth-, fifth-, sixth-graders, just getting started in 4-H--looking at him, so innocent. And his buddies from Strathmore and Lindsay High School, kids he'd known from 4-H for years, they were shaking their heads, grins on their faces: You got to hand it to Brad to say what he thinks.
"My plans when I get out of high school? I'll tell you, anything but agriculture. Agriculture's not for the little farmer."
Irene Santos, 15, nodded. She understood what Brad was saying and she didn't want to spend the rest of her life on a farm either. "I'm going into ag public relations or maybe become a lobbyist for ag issues," she said.
"I like the business (agriculture). I've always been a rancher's daughter so it's not that I don't know how to work a bit. But," she sighed and glanced at Brad's brother, Russell, 15, "I see Russell and, I mean, he really believes he's going to be feeding the world."
Farmers. For years they've been viewed as sun-scorched men and women who have always worn overalls and voted conservative. If they made money, it was thanks to government subsidies and minimally paid field hands. If they lost money, they were prime-time tragic drama. (Just last year, there were three feature films: "Places in the Heart," "Country" and "The River.")
Now, here are their children. Thanks to mass media, they're educationally and culturally more sophisticated than their parents. Thanks to the nature of the agricultural life style, which invariably requires participation by the entire family, they know the realities of farming.
Even in California--where agriculture is the state's largest industry and the San Joaquin Valley the largest and most fertile agricultural-producing area in the world--youths raised in Fresno, Tulare, Kings and Kern counties have no delusions. It's simply fact that the past five years have been the worst of times for farmers and there's no immediate solution in sight.
Hardly an inducement to considering a career in agriculture.
Yet in interviews with youths involved in school or extra-curricular agriculture-based programs around Tulare County, 160 miles northwest of Los Angeles, most said they saw their future in farming or some other agriculture-related field.
However, all added, they expected their lives would be much different from those of their parents.
It was mid-afternoon at the 90-acre school farm shared by Tulare Union and Tulare Western High School. The air was hot and dusty, the musty, milky odor of dairy cattle mixed with the flinty smell of the acetylene gas used in the machine shop, the grunts of cows and hogs chorusing the buzz of electric drills and welders.
Tulare tends to be dairy country, so its schools' ag department is heavy with courses in animal science and ag mechanics. Go to neighboring Visalia where cotton is grown next to citrus and a dairy might be on the other side, and its school district's vocational agriculture classes are more general--as much geared toward crop production as animal husbandry. But, reflecting changing times and needs, ornamental horticulture and landscaping are drawing more students every semester.
Max Corbett, a dairy science teacher, is Tulare Western High's FFA adviser. He and Tulare Union's FFA advisers, Frank Marinelli and Dave Caetano, had pulled in some of their best and brightest to talk about the future. All leaders in the Future Farmers of America, their conversation was sprinkled with references to such FFA activities as its leadership program, fund raising and competitive judging teams. ("Farm driving, horses, citrus--name it, and they've got a judging for it," explained Tulare Western's FFA president Frank Nunes, who went to Scotland this summer as part of a dairy cow judging team.)
They'd given it some thought, how they were different from their parents. As far as values go, their conversation indicated, those are the same: a love for the land, a belief in the work ethic and the value of family.