Are America's future farmers in the inner city?
- 14 March 2014
- From the section Magazine
There's a crisis on the farms of America: young people don't want to work on them. One organisation is turning to minority high school students to help build the future of farming.
Buena Park, California, is a sea of concrete. The closest thing to a farm here is Knott's Berry Farm, a popular amusement park where a farm once stood many decades ago.
But venture to the back of Buena Park High School's campus and you'll find pigs, chickens and steers, as well as students like sophomore Nathan Talavera driving a tractor.
Talavera was born in California. His parents are from Mexico City.
He had no experience with farming when a friend told him about the agriculture programme at Buena Park High.
It's part of an outreach effort by the FFA, formerly known as Future Farmers of America, to encourage minority and immigrant students to consider careers in farming.
The FFA was founded in 1928, and works with the US Departments of Education and Agriculture to get students more engaged in farming.
That includes children who have no family background in agriculture and live in urban areas like Buena Park.
"I really like animals, so I decided to get a pig, and I fell in love with pigs," says Talavera. "I've had three pigs so far."
Talavera raised the pigs then sold them at the Orange County Fair. Students can earn as much as $500 (£300) raising and selling animals.
Senior Urfia Abdul started with rabbits, feeding them and cleaning their cages, then moved on to goats.
Abdul was born in Southern California, but moved to India when she was one. A few years ago, her parents sent her back to Orange County to live with her uncle.
"The first semester, I almost cried every single day because I was so homesick", she says.
Then she discovered the agriculture programme at Buena Park High. It was "a place to call home," she says.
"Cleaning poop doesn't sound that amazing or fun," says Urfia with a chuckle.
"But when you're there cleaning the poop of the animals, there are five other friends that are doing the same thing. You talk to them and build more friendships, more memories."
At Buena Park High, 26 languages are spoken on campus, but most of the students are Latino.
Those students well know the model on most American farms: white farmers own the land, while Latinos do the hard manual labour.
According to the US Census, Hispanics are the "principal operators" of less than 3% of the nation's farms.
Many of the students at Buena Park have relatives who do the low-wage, difficult farm work, things like picking fruits and vegetables.
Jessica Fernandes, who heads the agriculture department at Buena Park High, wants her students to take pride in the people harvesting the crops, but also know there are other jobs on the farm too.
"There are so many steps from planting that seed to getting it all the way to the grocery store, and what happens to convince you or I to buy that product," said Fernandes.
"There are hundreds of jobs surrounding the agriculture industry."
Besides learning to drive a tractor, students at Buena Park High study the business of farming, called agriculture economics and agriculture sciences.
Nathan Talavera wants to be a veterinarian. Urfia Abdul is considering a career in accounting, within agriculture.
In addition to teaching, Fernandes works with the FFA. Under her guidance, the agriculture programme at Buena Park High has expanded from 60 students to nearly 500 in nine years.
Impressive growth for sure, but that still leaves three quarters of the student body uninterested in agriculture.
And Buena Park is a major success story for the FFA - at most other urban high schools, many students have probably never even heard of the organisation.
That worries America's farm industry.
"I would say crisis might be the right word because we are in desperate need of young farmers to carry on the tradition," says Steve Brown, chairman of the board of directors for the National FFA.
His organisation is piloting its "Enhancing Diversity" programme in Atlanta and San Antonio to reach black and Latino students.
Brown says their pitch to lower-income minorities is pretty straightforward: there are jobs for them on the farm.
"They're very employable. There is a strong need, and that need will continue as the baby boomers retire. there is a huge demand as well as a huge opportunity," Brown said.
Teacher Jessica Fernandes says her students also see farming as a way to get to college.
"If you are in agriculture classes, and you become a programme completer, which means staying for the four years and being actively involved, you have access to a $2m pot of scholarships that no other kid on campus has access to," says Fernandes.
Add it all up - the scholarships, the jobs, the cash for raising animals - and the pig pen at Buena Park High has become a popular hangout.