Wearing a hot-pink Mickey Mouse sweat shirt, a long, white fringed scarf draped around his neck, Robert Bennish, president of Canoga Park High School's chapter of Future Farmers of America, stood beside the swine pen on the southeast corner of campus and talked livestock--his ewe and the two little lambs she'd borne three weeks ago.
A few miles away at San Fernando Junior High School, three eighth-grade girls, each squeezed into white pants and hot-colored sweaters, protested teacher Joe Montanez's instructions to sit on the cement walk they'd helped build in horticulture class. They'd get dirty, they said. Montanez, obviously accustomed to this predilection for cleanliness, acquiesced. "So squat," he said with a shrug.
However, don't write that off as a feminine vanity. Over at Lincoln High School in Lincoln Heights, just north of downtown Los Angeles, a group of teacher Joe Mushinski's best students--all wearing jeans and carrying plastic brushes in their back pockets--were standing around the courtyard they'd landscaped. Sure, they liked this business of getting out and planting things, the boys agreed. It was good to be outside, doing things with their hands. Except you got so dirty, your hands were never the same--and if you had horticulture first or second period, well, for the rest of the day you might as well forget it.
No doubt about it, these are city kids. They'll never be farmers--in fact you lose points by even suggesting it--but there's more to agriculture than farming. Indeed, in statewide Future Farmers of America horticulture and floriculture competitions, students enrolled in the Los Angeles Unified School District's agriculture program are proving they have an edge over students from California's farm belt. That's the San Joaquin Valley, where, in cities like Tulare, Fresno and Modesto, the FFA is usually the richest and most powerful club on campus and members have been known to buy a pig for a freshman project and end up with a small herd of cattle plus a new car by graduation.
You don't run into that kind of success story in Los Angeles. Few of the local schools with an agriculture program have anything other than horticulture and floriculture classes. And it's hard to parlay working in a flower shop or landscaping (at least at the
neighborhood level) into a small fortune.
Nevertheless, school district officials see the agriculture program offered in 28 of the city's 49 high schools and 26 of its 75 junior highs as a vital and viable part of its curriculum.
Said Ted Hirayama, agricultural education specialist for the Los Angeles Unified School District: "The program works. It brings out something special in many students. Even though they're growing up in urban areas, there are lots of students interested in plants and animals. They should be given a chance to pursue these interests.
"For some it leads to a career, for others it will be an avocational or recreational activity. But the important thing is that these vocational courses give students a chance to experience immediate success. The very nature of what's involved in vocational agriculture makes them feel good about themselves and their community.
"In a few cases," Hirayama said, "the program actually keeps kids in school. And in just about all cases, we see them graduate and head directly into a job or college."
It came out of left field. Laura Barton, FFA president at Francis Polytechnic High School in Sun Valley, was talking about how nervous she was speaking in front of 750 people at last spring's Los Angeles Beautiful banquet--she was the public speaking sweepstakes winner--when, as casually as she might discuss the idiosyncrasies of her seven sisters and two brothers, she added, "and it doesn't matter that I'm deaf and hard of hearing."
Laura, a 12th-grader specializing in floriculture, was named her chapter's most active member--in a chapter filled with most-likely-to-succeed types. The membership of 77 is stacking up so many awards and achievements in FFA, Los Angeles Beautiful and other local competitions that chapter adviser Scott King has taken to referencing them on computer--easier, he said, for filling out college and scholarship applications.
King is real pushy about getting them to go on to college, said several of his students as they conducted a tour of the acre known as Senior Glade next to the ag bungalow. Of course, people also can read that as encouraging, they said, pointing out the various styles of landscaping they'd done along the path and how they use the Glade as a test area to see how plants look at different stages of development.
As they walked and talked, the five students--Laura and, all juniors, her sister Malinda, Greg Shapiro, Duane Smith, Erik Brannon--interrupted each other, eager to explain the horticulture and floriculture programs.