Both Modesto Junior College campuses bustled with 1,800 crisply attired high school students, many pacing intently while practicing speeches and oral arguments. Cattle obediently ambled in small rings. Plucked turkeys hung unadorned. Stacks of tests sat pointedly by pencils. Small engines stood ready to rev.
For the 61st year, MJC’s Field Day brought FFA students from around the state to practice their craft Saturday, honing their skills for sectional and state competitions to come. About 350 MJC student volunteers helped put it on, said animal science professor John Mendes, as well as faculty. “A lot of our college advisers were once in blue jackets themselves,” he said.
FFA fans spoke passionately for the program, which faces an uncertain future. Gov. Jerry Brown plans to remove the strings from $4 million the state now sets aside for ag education funding tied to FFA courses. The money would go into general education funding and local school boards would decide whether to continue ag courses.
“A lot of judges are former FFA students. You see that continuity,” said MJC ag business student Lindsey Anderson, standing in the massive ag pavilion on the west campus, its earthen floor accommodating small pens for livestock judging. “The students here don’t know it, but five years down the road they will. It changed who I am.”
Many of the students here will compete every weekend for nearly two months, she said, traveling to field days around the state to practice. “California is really rare. Other states just don’t have the pure numbers California has to do (field days). They have one state competition and that’s for all the marbles,” said Anderson, a former FFA Western regional vice president.
The friends she competed with and against remain close, she said. “You learn about hard work and responsibility that a lot of high school students don’t necessarily get.”
All the practice really drills that in, said Turlock teens on the dairy competition team from Pitman High. “You have to be at practice on time. You have to put the work in. You have to be on top of it,” said Darryl Hadlich.
Said Elizabeth Segars, “You get the ability to work as a team. There’s so much hands-on. The advisers show you and then you do it.”
Added Sheyenne Sousa, “Public speaking, it definitely helps in that.”
The product-judging side of FFA training has a downside, however, as higher standards get in the way.
“Oh, yeah. They tell me, ‘Stop judging your meat and just eat it!’ ” said Kelsea Jones, a poultry judging contestant from Pleasant Grove High in Elk Grove. She’s given up on chicken nuggets from anywhere, she said. Fortunately, she raises chickens and can make her own.
At the vegetable crop competition, MJC freshman Adalia Cajias timed students presenting their reasoning in judging carrots, one of four crops on the table, so to speak. Cajias and her sister “geeked out” in the event in high school, she said with a laugh, learning the varieties, how to identify damage from insects, disease or overwatering. Her veggie virtuosity changed how she evaluates store produce. “Completely,” she said.
Environmental horticulture major William Stacy, also at the vegetable competition, was not in FFA. “I came to (develop an interest in plants) later in life. If I’d realized it was this awesome earlier,” he said, ending the sentence with a shake of his head. “This is a really good learning experience for everybody.”
Mark Anglin, dean of the agriculture and environmental sciences division, credited the FFA system with helping students succeed in college. “If everyone would follow the educational model of ag, we’d have students ready to succeed,” he said. That model includes classroom learning, a career-linked project and the critical thinking of competitions. “By the time they come to us at community colleges, they already have full résumés. They’re just so far ahead,” he said.
Field Day is MJC’s time to shine, Anglin said. “It’s an opportunity to showcase our ag division as well as the college as a whole,” he said. “We draw a lot of students from out of the area and out of state.”
Garrett Fisher from Woodlake High in Woodlake was among those traveling for hours to compete. He headed into an oral interview competition, based on his application for a veterinary technician position. He had volunteered at a clinic, observed animal surgeries, dealt with distraught pet owners and castrated more than 1,000 cattle at his family farm. He said he was ready for more responsibility, fielding a host of questions posed by judges Sean Haynes and Lisa Edgar of the Rabobank agribusiness group.
When the interview was over, Haynes said he looks for eye contact, clarity in explanations and “lack of verbal funghi” — the ums, yeahs and ya’knows that sometimes clutter teen speech. Top interviewees ask questions, he added. “Like, have I missed anything? Make it a conversation.”
Edgar said she looks for real-world examples, specifics that tell her the applicant really knows what the job will be like. Talking about a stressful experience can be a plus if handled well, she said, “Relating it to the job without becoming emotional shows an ability to handle things.”