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EARTHWATCH

New Interest Takes Root in Ag Careers

September 16, 1993|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

High school senior Dawnette Hatton had a quick and definite answer to the question, "Why did you enroll in agricultural courses each of the four years you spent at Fillmore High?"

"I feel it's the No. 1 leading business in the world," she said.

Dawnette's commitment is such that she has also become a local leader in the Future Farmers of America, a high school service club with a name that means what it says.

As regular readers of this column know, I believe that the "ag business," as it has come to be called these days, figures prominently in the environmental picture. But, according to Dawnette, it's also becoming a big thing in the career scene.

Since she started taking agricultural classes four years ago, Dawnette said enrollment in the classes and the FFA has tripled. Amazed, I pressed for a further explanation.

"Money," she answered.

Whether owing to the high prices paid to some FFA members for their prize-winning local livestock at recent Ventura County fairs, or the burgeoning job market for ag students (there are 10% more jobs available than trained high school or college graduates), it's a good business.

That 10% figure was provided by the official magazine of the FFA. Here is another one from another issue: It seems less than 10% of ag graduates go into what they call "production," such as driving a tractor. The other 90% become managers, engineers, scientists, marketers, even agricultural social workers. Entry level salaries are more than $20,000.

For a further perspective, I consulted the University of California at Davis, sort of the Annapolis of agriculture, and learned that our state is the only one in the nation where the number of farms is increasing. While the media have been carrying what amounts to obituaries for the small and medium farm nationwide, California has been expanding acreage in this category.

And those California farms certified as "organic," which means they use environmentally friendly production methods, have been booming financially. According to Prof. Roberta Cook of UC Davis, farmers' income from this sort of production went from $40 million in 1987 to $78 million in 1992.

I asked Dawnette's teacher, Don Dyer, about all of this. His program at Fillmore High has a terrific lab. It's an 80-acre working farm--one of the largest such facilities in the state--where the students get hands-on experience.

Dyer says enrollment is at record highs at his and other schools in the county. Nationwide, a measure of this growth is mirrored in FFA membership figures. It's gone from 300,000 to 400,000 in recent years. There are FFA chapters at high schools in Ventura, Santa Paula and Camarillo, in addition to Fillmore.

Dyer has been introducing various environmental aspects to his curriculum, such as lowered chemical usage, biological bug control and composting.

Computers are used too, because farming today has as much to do with spread sheets as manure spreaders. Dawnette talked to me about Dyer's computer classes with the enthusiasm of a tyro pilot describing the latest stealth fighter.

This ag high-tech connection has not gone unnoticed in the computer industry. The other day a box with a computer game called Sim Farm arrived in the mail. Like its cousin Sim City, which has become so famous that President Clinton recently handed out awards to youngsters who excelled at playing it, Sim Farm allows a young person to be both a god and a tycoon--or perish in the attempt--while running an enterprise.

Environmental smarts are required to win at these simulation games. In fact, if the player is environmentally unconscious he or she will encounter disaster.

What's interesting is that Maxis, the company that makes Sim Farm, had the nerve to publish the game at a time when country folks were, so to speak, abandoning the farm. But then city folks, it seems, are rushing in to replace them.

When I was double-checking the job scene in the agricultural category, I learned that the enrollment in the agriculture department at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo includes more kids from the cities than the country. According to LeRoy Davis, chairman of the Agribusiness Department there, fewer than half of his enrollees have ever been on a farm.

* FYI

* For information on the local activities of the Future Farmers of America or careers in agriculture, call Paul Stark, FFA regional adviser, 756-2402.

* For information on Sim Farm, the computer game, call (800) 33-MAXIS.

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