■ By Olivia Gildea / Reporter
Students of West Valley High School are loving life down at their farm, and earning college credits at Mt. San Antonio College while they’re at it.
West Valley’s agriculture program started a little over six years ago with a dirt lot and few class offerings. The school did not have a permanent teacher to head the program. Student interest was minimal. Funding was almost nonexistent, and the direction of the program was unknown.
Unfortunately, this seems to be the case with many schools. Agriculture programs and student gardens are overlooked or brushed off due to limited funding and resources, and some don’t even know where to start. Even if they do, the students have the final say in whether or not they’re interested. Little student interest leads to classes being abolished and programs defunded.
Fortunately, this wasn’t what happened to West Valley.
John Campbell joined the West Valley staff in 2012 as the only agriculture teacher. Without a paddle, Campbell taught two classes to a total of 100 students and tried to make the best of it. He was without a team, and taking on the program alone seemed like a daunting task.
Another teacher was brought on staff in Campbell’s second year, and together, they began applying for funding. Through the California Department of Education, the school was granted $30,000 to spearhead the agriculture program. Although it didn’t go very far, it was just enough to get the program on its feet.
A surge of interest in the program ignited over the next two years. Students began picking up on classes, and both teachers were leading six periods of classes each. Courses began including agricultural biology, agricultural chemistry, plant and soil science, veterinary science and agricultural mechanics.
By the fifth year, West Valley was receiving even more grants, including an incentive grant from the state. This allowed for the purchase of large equipment such as a tractor, livestock pens and more. Another teacher was brought on staff as student interest began soaring.
As of now, West Valley’s agricultural program operates on an 8-acre farm located on the school’s campus. Five hundred students—about 1 in every 3.5 students attending West Valley—are involved in the program, where they can choose from 18 sections of classes.
Red tape proved to be a large issue in getting the program off the ground, and some of those issues still linger. Many grants restrict how the funding can be used.
Because of this, the program hasn’t quite reached its full potential. Campbell hopes to one day be able to grow enough produce to be able to sell at markets, distribute to students, donate to the community or use in a fresh salad bar that would be located on campus.
“I still feel we’re far away from where we actually want to be,” says Campbell, though the feat is already one for the books. West Valley and Hemet High are the only schools within the Hemet Unified School District that operate agricultural programs.
Though the program has plenty more plans in store, the students love the program and spending time on the farm, and it’s a great way to build their resumes. Classes are structured in a way to encourage students to stay in the program throughout their high school career. In addition, the Future Farmers of America (FFA) encourages students to achieve success within the agriculture program and become part of a larger community.
Students and teachers both work year-round to maintain the farm, which includes caring for the fruit orchards and taking care of the farm’s chickens, pigs and goats. Farm-fresh eggs are sold daily by students at the school for four dollars a dozen, which encourages students to work hard and be proud of their product.
In the future, Campbell hopes to be able to purchase a truck and trailer so that students can take their livestock to fairs and compete in showmanship competitions and auctions. Further work on the farm’s facilities could eventually lead to it becoming a certified farmers market, which could draw more attention to the farm and inspire more students to take part in the program.
While there’s still plenty to learn—and lots of ground squirrels to take care of—the students at West Valley are simply enjoying their time on the farm. Crops they grow are brought home to their families, tilled back into the soil, used in home economics class or shared with the school’s front office for staff to take what they like.
Plenty of schools face issues with being able to provide gardens for their students to learn and interact in. Funding, time and space are some examples of the main obstacles schools face trying to start a successful program like West Valley’s, especially if agriculture isn’t a part of the required curriculum.
However, West Valley is proof that it is possible. With the right eye for grants, any school can apply and receive funding to create their own farm or garden plot. The education these students receive will stick with them throughout their lives, aiding them in their personal growth and education, and providing a solution for anyone who may be facing food insecurity.
To learn more about West Valley’s agriculture program, visit www.hemetwestvalleyffa.org or follow them on Instagram @the_farm_at_west_valley or @westvalleyffa_hemet.