This love story begins in second grade, when Alan Flores took a field trip to Sunny Hills High School in Fullerton and gazed in wonder on its three-acre farm, adjoining pasture land and barnyard full of livestock.

Fast forward about 10 years, and Flores, now a senior at Sunny Hills, was among the 250 or so OC youths showing off their goats, chickens, hogs and cows in the first week of this month’s Orange County Fair.

Flores hopes to make animals more than a hobby. “I’ve chosen to take a career in a veterinary field,” he said, sitting on a bale of hay and rubbing the snout and jowls of Quartz, his steer, at last week’s fair.

It’s a little surprising to learn that the agriculture-education programs that taught Flores how to care for Quartz are still vital in a densely populated suburban county that is far removed from its rural roots — and famed instead for its beaches and “real housewives.”

What’s more surprising is that these programs – agriculture classes, 4-H and Future Farmers of America (FFA) – have evolved their offerings to serve a greater variety of students, some of them low-income or ethnic minorities from the county’s most urban settings. Further, the lessons that students learn in agriculture programs go well beyond farming to include tech, business and sustainability.

The saying that there’s more to agriculture studies these days than “cow and plow” is proving true in Orange County, though challenges remain in getting the benefits of to all kids.

No Girls Allowed

FFA was founded in 1928 as a national organization for boys in rural farming communities. Based in high schools, it combines hands-on animal and plant cultivation with science curriculum in for-credit classes. In 1969, girls were admitted to FFA, and they are now the majority of students in the OC programs.

Agriculture teachers in the state are majority-female as well, said Kim Miller, who trains aspiring teachers at Cal Poly Pomona and taught agriculture in Orange County high schools for 15 years.

She’s now the OC Fair Livestock Supervisor, overseeing competitive events that give students the chance to show their animals, win awards and in some cases sell their livestock in an auction.

But agricultural science is more than county fairs; for example, students in Westminster High School’s agriculture department, affiliated with FFA, grow fresh fruit and vegetables for food pantries, as profiled in this video. Other high school-FFA collaboratives sell their farm produce, take part in debate activities and study horticulture, producing for-sale corsages.

Hands-on experiences such as these make learning more vivid, said Sunny Hills agriculture teacher and FFA advisor Jeremy Cates, who recalled students watching goats give birth in his veterinary science class last January. Even tasting the fresh herbs grown in his classroom has an impact, let alone tomatoes and cucumbers cultivated outside, he said.

Most of his students are not from a rural background, though sometimes students have immigrant parents who are. For example, Alan Flores’ mother is from Mexico City and her family kept chickens and other livestock.

Farm animals are also something of a family tradition for Mission Viejo High School senior Toni Hammork, now following in the footsteps of her older siblings who took part in 4-H and FFA. At this year’s fair, she won numerous first place ribbons for her livestock, a 1300-pound steer named Mooshu and her pig, Albert Einswine.

Toni Hammork, 17, and her one and a half year old steer, Mushu. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

If Hammork’s peers don’t always get her love for livestock, which requires two hours a day of animal care and cleanup, she’s not worried. And she’s well aware that some students at her school refer to her cohorts as “the farmers,” but she’s not sweating it.

“I can say I raised cattle,” she said proudly. Hammork hopes to work in animal science or become an agriculture studies teacher.

Forward, Then Backward

Like FFA, 4-H has its roots in a more rural America: it was started in Ohio in 1902 and known at first as “The Tomato Club” or the “Corn Growing Club.” Orange County has 4-H clubs and after-school programs for kids as young as 9.

In 2015, the University of California’s 4-H Youth Development Program, which oversees statewide 4-H, launched a push to boost enrollment in ethnic communities in seven counties, including Orange. The results were dramatic.

Enrollment of Latinos in Orange County 4-H, largely in the afterschool programs, grew from 302 in the 2014-15 school year to 1269 the next, peaking at 2177 in 2017-18.

Students show off their pigs to the crowd at the OC fair. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

The OC’s afterschool programs included activities to promote health as well as projects in science, technology, engineering and math, also known as STEM.

Jason Suppes, one of a team of two who ran the program, saw its benefits in low-income neighborhoods of Anaheim where they held classes. One memorable activity was a bicycle-fueled blender in which kids made fruit and vegetable smoothies.

Nutritional education is particularly important in the OC’s urban neighborhoods which often suffer disproportionately higher rates of obesity and diabetes.

But the robotics program was also a hit, Suppes said, referring to a 4-H after-school program for middle school students called “junk drawer robotics.” Kids in the class learn to design and build tech creations using batteries, wires and electronic parts that are often available in most homes.

Research proves that high-quality after-school programs improve student academic performance in low-income communities, said UC Irvine School of Education Professor Sandra Simpkins. The programs often introduce kids to topics they aren’t getting in school, or they offer learning in a less rigidly structured way, she said.

“Teachers have to cover certain content. There are restrictions on what they’re allowed to do or not,” she said. “Leaders of after-school programs can follow students’ interests.”

Further, after-school programs can give lower-income kids a taste of the enrichment experiences that many students take for granted in Orange County, where a week at summer computer camp in Irvine could cost upwards of $1,000.

But despite 4-H’s success in building participation, Latino enrollment in 4-H dropped precipitously from over 2,000 kids to 88 last year after a staff reshuffling. Suppes took another position, and his partner, who was bilingual and had built considerable parental involvement and support, moved on to a new job in Stanislaus County.

Lack of consistency can undermine the gains made possible by afterschool programs, Simpkins said.

A new after-school professional was recently hired, and state 4-H officials hope rebuilding can occur quickly.

“It’s definitely a disappointment to see something grow and then see it not being sustained because of staffing changes,” said Shannon J. Horrillo, Statewide 4-H Director at the University of California, Agriculture and Natural Resources. “But you can expect to see increased growth next year.”

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