Elk Grove students grateful for continued ag funds

As the State Fair began last week, 18 Elk Grove High School students showed off sheep and other animals they spent the past year raising in one of the area’s largest agriculture education programs.

They said they were grateful that Gov. Jerry Brown and lawmakers in June preserved a critical source of funding for their farm-focused efforts, which might otherwise have been lost in an era of smartphones and computer-based tests.

Elk Grove High School’s FFA program – formerly known as Future Farmers of America – had 460 students this past year. The school has a 1-acre farm where students raise rabbits, hens, pigs and goats. At nearby Florin High School, nearly half of the 1,476 students participate in FFA.

“We use that (money) for a lot of supplies and we use it to transport students to leadership activities and we use it to transport students to college visits and things,” said Mike Albiani, an agriculture teacher at Elk Grove High. “In all reality, we would have no other funding (without the grant) … except fundraising and booster clubs.”

In January, Brown proposed eliminating a $4.1 million earmark called the Agricultural Career Technical Education Incentive Grant. State leaders created the fund in 1983 to help schools improve agricultural programs. Albiani said eliminating the grant also would have jeopardized certain standards like class size limits and availability of summer programs.

“Those standards are as important as the money,” Albiani said. “If the money went away the standards went away also.”

Mary Swanberg, who will be an Elk Grove senior this fall, said she felt blessed to spend time with the animals and to show them at the fair. The program helped Swanberg, 17, understand and appreciate agriculture, conquer her childhood fear of farm animals and develop leadership skills.

“(The program) really just gives you the opportunity to come out of your shell,” Swanberg said. “It means everything to me.”

Brown has sought to permanently eliminate most education earmarks and established a new funding stream giving school districts more authority over how they spend their money. While that gives districts more power, it has upset constituencies that fought years ago to create pots of money that fund their programs. Agricultural education advocates feared that districts would direct the money to other priorities.

A letter-writing campaign initiated by Assemblyman Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield, resulted in students and advocates sending more than 10,000 letters in hopes of preserving the agricultural funds. Lawmakers and Brown ultimately agreed to do so.

Salas said the sheer number of letters telling stories of the program’s impact helped push the Legislature to put the grant back in the budget.

“When you have over 10,000 letters from kids, students … I think it has a tremendous impact,” Salas said. “We got some letters also from some people who have graduated from the program who are now lawyers, and I believe one was a doctor.”

Salas said he, along with the students and teachers who wrote letters, are grateful to the governor and others for allowing this program to continue.

“I’m just pleased that everybody saw the importance of this program,” Salas said. “We’re excited, we’re thrilled, and now we’re advocating for this funding to put be put in consistently every year moving forward.”