Students at Turlock High School have welded together a 15-foot trailer designed to endure the rigors of an almond harvest.
They did it as part of FFA, an agricultural education program that is holding up fairly well despite the strains on school budgets.
The program, formerly known as Future Farmers of America, continues its 82-year-old mission of preparing young people for farming and related jobs.
"You get to use your hands," said Blake Peterson, a Turlock High sophomore. "I'm taking a welding class and ag mechanics and ag science and ag biology."
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FFA is closely tied to high school ag departments. They are feeling some of the same pinch as education in general, but some of their income comes from specific state and federal sources that have held steady.
"We've been fortunate," said Joe DiGrazia, an ag teacher at Turlock High, which also relies on volunteers and donors who see the value of the FFA program.
"It's life skills, hands-on skills, employable skills that will give them a head start over kids who don't have that," he said.
National FFA Week, which ended Saturday, showcased the work of about
506,000 members nationwide.
California has about 66,000 members, about a sixth of them in the Northern San Joaquin Valley and adjacent Sierra Nevada counties.
In classes and at competitions, they hone their knowledge about raising crops and livestock, along with ag mechanics, marketing, public speaking and other skills.
"I show dairy cattle and weld," said Dominic Agresti-Assali, a Turlock High senior. "I pretty much live in the shop."
Dominic said the program remains strong but has had difficulties, including increased class sizes.
"When you have welding class with 30 kids in it, it's hard to move around," he said.
The situation would be worse were it not for the $130 million the state gets each year from the main federal program for ag education and other technical classes. California schools also get about $4 million a year from a state fund.
Ag 'absolutely vital'
Both sources have proved reliable, said Jim Aschwanden, executive director of the California Agricultural Teachers Association.
"I think there's a growing realization that the agricultural industry is still absolutely vital to California, and they want these programs to continue," he said.
The programs serve students bound for four-year colleges along with those who will find good jobs after attending community colleges or vocational schools, Aschwanden said.
On a recent day at Turlock High, freshmen cut small pieces of metal and assembled them into devices for pulling car battery cables. Advanced students have worked on the almond trailer for a grower who provided the materials and will use the rig to carry nuts.
That kind of experience is useful to many employers, said Keith Griffith, senior manager for education at the Stanislaus Economic Development and Workforce Alliance.
"(The student) is actually using the skills he has learned in measuring and geometry in order to cut the piece of steel he needs to weld onto the trailer," he said.
Not everyone in FFA or ag education is planning on a full-time career in a farming-related field.
"I want to be a radiologist, but I also want to own a ranch later on," said Karli Johnsen, a Turlock High senior headed for Kaplan College in North Hollywood.
In her ag classes, she has learned how to clip flowers and care for pig teeth, among other things.
"It's definitely valuable," Karli said. "You learn a lot of life lessons, and you learn to understand the ag industry."
DiGrazia told of another student who "cut every 2-by-4" for a house that her family helped build through Habitat for Humanity.
Dominic is among those planning to put his ag training to work full time. He will study dairy science at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, then return to the family farm.
Dominic has a simple explanation for why ag education matters.
"We farm, you eat," he said. "Slowly but surely, farming is diminishing with development, so it's important that people are aware."
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2385.