Future funding for high school agricultural education would be at risk, if Gov. Brown eliminates the Agriculture Education Incentive Grant program as he suggested when he signed this year's state budget. Brown agreed to retain the $4.1 million program this year, but called for a program evaluation, saying he preferred locally controlled funding.

Agriculture students, teachers and farm organizations fear the intense economic pressure school districts face will erode funding for the state's 315 agriculture programs.

At the governor's direction, state officials visited Elk Grove and Galt high schools last week to hear firsthand how the program grants are used and what they mean to high school agriculture programs. Afterward, they were tight-lipped about their impressions of the grant program and how their evaluations will be used to decide on funding in next year's state budget.

Cheryl Reece, who heads the Galt High School Agriculture Department, said she worries that the governor will take funding that has been reserved for agriculture education grants and redistribute it to all California school districts.

"This could mean many programs will close, because districts will use funds no longer designated for agriculture on anything they choose," Reece said.

Enrollment in agriculture classes has steadily climbed during the past decade and today, about 78,000 California high school students take agriculture-related classes. Grant funds help pay for such things as upgrading shop equipment, purchasing trailers, expanding and improving livestock facilities, and funding curriculum enrichment activities, such as field study. Grants range from $6,000 to $46,000, depending on program size.

During the evaluation at Galt High School, students told state officials they're involved in agricultural classes because they want to be part of a positive learning environment and they want to gain practical job skills. Speakers also said many students advance to four-year colleges and that the state's agriculture education programs offer nearly 1,300 courses approved for admission into California university systems.

"I'm taking agriculture education classes because I want classes that are welcoming and I want to be around nature," Galt High School junior Justine Busse said. "Right now, I'm taking floral design and I absolutely love my classes."

Busse said her classes include design, business management and marketing.

A number of students told the governor's evaluation team they got off on the wrong foot when they started high school and were having trouble with grades and behavior. Many said the hands-on learning, work experience and leadership training through high school agriculture programs and the national and state FFA organizations turned their lives around and provided future career options they wouldn't have found otherwise.

In a letter to the governor, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, President Jeffrey Armstrong said, "I am a product of (high school) agricultural education and the Future Farmers of America organization. It was a significant factor in my professional success."

Armstrong concluded his letter to Brown by saying, "Now is not the time to decrease commitment to secondary agricultural education in our public schools, especially given the past and current successes of the students in those programs."

The governor said when he signed the state budget he initially eliminated funding for the agriculture education grant program because he believes local education agencies are in the "best position to allocate their funding to meet local needs and priorities," but said he relented due to strong support for the program in the Legislature.

The California Farm Bureau Federation has called on its Farm Team members to send letters to the governor in support of the program and agricultural education.

"Those of us who have come through the agricultural education system understand how it has made California the agricultural leader it is today," CFBF President Paul Wenger said. "The programs are also expanding in suburban and urban areas, among students with no agricultural background but who are interested in leadership and personal-development training. Agriculture education programs truly reflect the diversity of today's California student population and they deserve continued support."

During the presentations to the evaluation team, the agricultural education program at Fullerton Union High School in Orange County was cited as an example of an urban school with a strong agricultural program. The Fullerton school includes a working 2.5-acre farm. The school's FFA chapter has nearly 400 members, about 20 percent of the entire student body.

Although state law requires that every student be educated according to his or her abilities, the emphasis in California high schools is on college preparatory classes, said Jim Aschwanden, executive director of the California Agricultural Teachers' Association.

"There's a lot of concern that technical preparation and industrial arts aren't being taught anymore," he said. "A lot of kids don't want an academic career, but there's very little room in the curriculum to teach anything else. These students are the future of agriculture in our state and the grant program offers them important opportunities."

Information on the CFBF Farm Team call for sending letters of support to the governor is available online at www.cfbf.com; follow the Farm Team link for background and a sample letter.

Editor's Note: Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert, the online newspaper for the California Farm Bureau Federation,