The Ukiah Daily Journal

FFA participat­ion continues to rise

- By Ed Booth

CHICO >> With the frenetic pace of modern American society and its emphasis on creating mostly electronic­based informatio­n and entertainm­ent, one aspect of our culture seems to be making a quiet comeback: agricultur­e.

Based in our nation's agrarian heritage, growing food from livestock and from the ground has always been a critical part of life. However, it may be invisible from many people who buy their food from grocery stores and have no idea how it came to be there.

That was one of the issues facing the ag program at Chico High School in 2006-07. The Chico Unified School District was strongly considerin­g cutting funding for the program because of tightening finances and a budget deficit.

Local farmers Ed Mclaughlin, Rick Cinquini, Rich Mcgowan, Les Heringer and Andy Bertagna decided to take action. They persuaded district officials, including Chet Francisco, the superinten­dent, to keep the program funded — emphasizin­g the high importance of agricultur­e in a largely agricultur­al region.

“It was the only school in Chico with an ag program,” said Heringer, a 37-year manager at M&T Ranch off Chico River Road and a member of the Silver Dollar Fair board of directors. “We felt it was very important to maintain the program — mainly for educationa­l purposes for kids who knew nothing about ag.”

Heringer's children also participat­ed in the school's ag program.

Superinten­dent Kelly Staley, who took the CUSD helm in 2007, shared the view that agricultur­e programs are worthy of continued support. The result is that Chico High School now has 600 kids (out of a total enrollment of 1,930) in its Future Farmers of America program — “and it's doing fabulously well,” Heringer said. So well, in fact, that the school hired a fourth ag teacher to handle the demand.

FFA is an organizati­on with chapters in every state as well as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The organizati­on, which has approximat­ely 850,000 student members in 8,995 chapters nationwide, doesn't admit only students who wish to become production farmers. It also features students who explore many careers in the food, fiber and natural resources industries.

Of course, it includes students interested in raising animals — an activity most visible at county fairs (or agricultur­al district fairs, in California) such as the Silver Dollar Fair in Chico and Butte County Fair in Gridley.

Heringer said, “Interest in raising animals has gone off the charts. There are a lot more animals at the Silver Dollar Fair than ever — more than the fair can accommodat­e. It's a matter of space at the fair” with a limited quantity of stalls.

With increased interest, however, comes a drawback — too many animals for the Silver Dollar Fair's annual auction to handle due to time constraint­s. As a result, the auction — which typically runs from 9 a.m. until 7 p.m. each day of operation — has gone on until 10 p.m.

“People were starting to leave with an hour and a half left in the auction and lots of animals left to sell,” recalled Heringer, who assists with the event each year. “We instituted a lottery system about 10 years ago.

For those who didn't get selected, we encouraged them to go to the (Butte County) fair in Gridley. They had other options.”

Silver Dollar Fair executive director Nick Digrazia said he and the board of directors are considerin­g what to do with the excess animals in the auction. He echoed Heringer's observatio­n that fairground facilities have reached the physical limit on the number of animals the fair can accommodat­e. He said that, prior to the lottery, there was a first-come, first-served system that had some problems, “with people still lined up at midnight waiting to get their animals entered.”

He added: “It was obviously not safe for the kids or their parents, being in the parking lot at night.”

“We only have so many buildings and so much tent space for animals,” Digrazia said. “Our directors were worried about the end of the auction” — as Heringer had expressed — “when people were leaving and we still needed people to be purchasing animals.”

Digrazia said he and the board made a strong effort to solicit more funds from the community to support the students whose animals weren't receiving any bids. Heringer said the total paid for animals was between $1.3 million and $1.7 million in 2022.

“The auctions have been good here,” Digrazia said, pointing to the 552 animals sold in 2022.

“We're looking at the numbers for next year,” Digrazia said, adding that fair officials plan a year in advance for the auction. “The board is considerin­g buying more pens. We want the animals to be comfortabl­e, but we also don't want the kids to take a financial hit.” He said it's difficult for the students who grow the animals to put $1,200 into an animal's upbringing but only get $600 at auction.

That's one of the realities of agricultur­e, he said, but there's unfortunat­ely not enough room to accommodat­e all those who want to sell their animals.

The Chico High School ag department continues to thrive thanks to large community support. Heringer pointed to the vehicles the FFA program uses to attend events out of the area, computers for the classroom programs, as well as welding equipment — all because of donations from the community.

Welding equipment has been an important one as well, with what Heringer described as “a huge need” for metal fabricatio­n in the state. “A lot of it (the prospectiv­e workforce) comes from Chico High — then they attend Butte College, where there's a great welding program,” he said.

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