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Farming Out an Education : High School Students Learn Business Skills by Raising Livestock


FULLERTON — The bell rings and the day is over.

As some students at Sunny Hills High School peel out of the campus driveway in their cars, they roar past a seven-acre farm where classmates are raising chickens, pigs, steers, goats and flowers.

Friendship and business skills flourish between the pig pens and chicken coops, say student farmers and their agriculture teacher, Chris Maddalena.

"It's a lot of hands-on, and everybody's really close down here," said Brian Romero, 15, a sophomore who is raising a Suffolk sheep he named Clarice after the heroine of the movie "The Silence of the Lambs."

In a county that has become increasingly urban, educators no longer see high school agricultural programs as simply training grounds for future farmers. Raising animals and plants teaches responsibility, compassion, teamwork and business skills, educators say.

"Some kids stay in school because they enjoy athletics. These kids enjoy school that much more because of the animals," said Bill Habermehl, an assistant superintendent at the Orange County Department of Education.

Nine high schools in Orange County have agricultural programs; five of those schools are in the Fullerton Joint Union High School District.

Brian and other students in the Sunny Hills High program must buy their own animals, pay for their feed and care for them--often spending hours at the farm every afternoon.

When Angel Rodriquez, 17, adopted a day-old runt pig two years ago, she had to feed it every two hours, day and night.

"These are among the most responsible students I know in the school," said Principal George Giokaris. "Their self-confidence has improved, and they do better in all areas."

The animals and plants at Sunny Hills are raised as special projects for Maddalena's classes in biology and botany. Students attend classes in a room at the farm, but do homework in the fields.

"They see it from bottom to top--from shoveling manure in their pens to figuring out profits and losses in their ledgers," Maddalena said.

Farming is a business like any other, said Maddalena, 30, who hatches around 1,000 chicks a year at his poultry farm in Azusa and breeds chickens and ducks. "Whether you're selling nuts and bolts or chicken eggs, it's marketing," he said.

Angel said she wants to be a veterinarian, and has been accepted to Cal Poly Pomona. While some students plan agricultural careers, others said they simply like animals and have fun at the farm.

Tracey Potts, 16, is raising 60 egg-laying hens, 35 chicks, 16 breeding chickens and a goat at the farm. At home, she has nine chicks, eight baby rats, six adult rats, a duck, a dog and a bird.

"If it's animals, I like it!" Tracey said.

Clint Sauer, 15, raises a goat and spends hours in a small greenhouse, where goldfish swim around plants growing in a long tub of water.

"It's neat to see something you can keep growing," said Clint, as he held up a lily that he found on the verge of death and revived.

Animals are raised for show and breeding. Though much of the livestock will be slaughtered, the students develop close ties to their wards.

Brian's goat responds when he calls her name. "She follows me everywhere," he said, laughing. He plans to breed her with a ram and sell her lambs for $80 to $90.

Many students raise pigs, show them at fairs, then eventually have them slaughtered and sell the meat. A hog costs between $85 and $140, Maddalena said, and will cost about $10 a week to feed. He works with students to find sponsors, who sometimes help pay for the upkeep, or agree to buy the animal when it's ready for slaughter.

It costs about $105 to have a pig slaughtered and processed. An average animal weighs about 225 pounds and sells for $2 a pound, Maddalena said.

"It's so tasty and juicy, because it's fresh," said K. D. Hoban, 15, who is the 10th child in her family to raise animals at the farm.

No growth stimulants or antibiotics are used, Maddalena said.

K. D., a sophomore, also raises chickens, collects their eggs each day and sells them to regular customers.

"I have customers who won't eat anything but farm-fresh eggs," she said.

Last weekend three students in Maddalena's program competed at the Tulare-Kings Field Day Poultry Contest.

"Although they didn't get awards, their scores were competitive," Maddalena said.

Students last fall won awards at the Los Angeles County Fair for livestock they raised, he said.

The students will hold a country fair at the farm on April 24, where they will show off their animals and teach others about the fun and importance of agriculture.

"I'd like to see you guys eat without us, " Clint said.

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