TURLOCK — Pitman High School found space, between the baseball field and the track, for students to plant a vegetable garden.
It is the work of the FFA, which teaches agricultural and leadership skills to about 550,000 members across the nation.
You can get an idea of this next Saturday, when Modesto Junior College holds its annual FFA Field Day. I got a glimpse during a visit Thursday to Pitman, which has entered 10 of the 18 competitions.
The school is at the north end of Turlock, close to wide expanses of field crops and orchards, but most of the FFA members actually live in town.
"We're in a city," said Krista Vannest, one of the ag teachers and FFA advisers. "We need to find a way to get the kids' hands dirty."
No problem with that. Thursday, students planted 110 grapevines in what used to be turf beyond the right-field wall. The grapes eventually will go to a winery, although the high schoolers will have no contact with anything fermented.
Among the planters was Tim Truax, recently elected president for the central region of the California FFA. He shows hogs, sheep, cattle and goats and has taken part in competitions that hone speaking skills.
"If I carry that into college, it's going to help me in and out of the classroom," said Tim, who hopes to study animal nutrition and work in the feed business.
The FFA is thriving in Stanislaus County and across the nation, a result in part of the strength of agriculture these days. The program is closely tied to high school and college ag courses, and the time put in by the teacher-advisers is another reason for the success.
At the Field Day, some Pitman students will show their skills at maintaining farm machinery, judging milk quality, arranging flowers and interviewing for a job.
Megan O'Connell will compete in dairy cattle judging, which requires her to inspect four cows and explain which has the best udders and other features.
"You have to convince strangers why you believe the cows should be placed that way," she said.
Megan hopes to study ag communications at California State University, Fresno, and work as an event planner and public speaker for a farm-related business.
Lucas Schultz, who raises meat goats on a small rural parcel, has entered the field day's agronomy contest. That involves judging the quality of alfalfa hay and other crops and identifying about 80 crops, seeds, weeds and bugs.
Lucas hopes to become an ag teacher himself. "We need people to study agriculture because if we didn't have agriculture, we couldn't survive," he said.
FFA members help maintain the turf on Pitman's athletic fields. They created compost piles that break down plant waste with the help of worms.
The school gardens produce cabbage, broccoli, kale, carrots, lettuce, onions, tomatoes, boysenberries and plenty more, as the students work through the summer.
A third of the produce will be entered in the county fair. Another third is sold through community-supported agriculture, where subscribers pay for regular deliveries. The rest is donated to the United Samaritans Foundation, which feeds low-income residents.
That's a nice combination: Get your hands dirty, learn about business and help people in need.
"It completely changes your life," Megan said. "Once you do this, you get a whole new insight into what agriculture is and what leadership is."
Have an idea for the Farm Beat? Contact John Holland at email@example.com or (209) 578-2385.
AT A GLANCE
WHAT: Modesto Junior College 60th annual FFA Field Day, sponsored by the MJC Agriculture and Environmental Sciences Department and Young Farmers
WHEN: March 23; registration begins at 7 a.m. on the east and west campuses; awards ceremony is at 4 p.m. at the east campus gymnasium.
WHERE: East campus, 435 College Ave.; west campus, 2201 Blue Gum Ave.
INFO: (209) 575-6200 or www.mjc.edu