Kelsey Clark has a favorite spot to do her class work at Mesa's Red Mountain High School.
When the 17-year-old senior needs to focus on her science project, she walks past the greenhouses, the fish tanks and the animal cages to a small forest behind the school. It is her project.
Future Farmers of America as it once was is gone. But the moniker - FFA - lives on as students in agriculture courses around the East Valley study the biotechnology, veterinary sciences, business plans, horticulture, medicine creation, food science and mechanics.
"Now it's just FFA," said Ray Gless, an agriculture sciences instructor at Red Mountain and director of the program for the school district. "Some people would say 'future of agriculture.' It's changed so much. Only 2 percent (of agriculture) is farmers. Ninety-eight percent is support and resources, business and processes, and technologies."
Clark's first class in agriculture was animal science. Now she has an eye on raising livestock in a national forest in the future. To that end, she is learning the techniques needed to grow conifers in the desert.
She'll take that a step further and prepare them to be sold as part of an agribusiness project during the holidays.
"Over the summer I was doing irrigation systems," she said. "Soon, I'll trim and shape the trees. I like that; it gives me experience."
Students can still choose to raise livestock - goats, sheep and chickens are more common than the steers of the past. But they also test theories and raise shrimp and tilapia to make better food sources for restaurants.
"Around here it's an urban environment. They don't have any livestock at their house," said Amy Dillard, instructor at Gilbert's Highland High. "For $25 they get feed and a chicken and can show it at the fair."
There, students can sell it and earn between $30 and $80. Gilbert has raised the bar in its agriculture courses. The district offers a variety of classes, including piloting an Advance Placement agriculture science biology class this year at Highland.
"With anything in the Gilbert area, we've moved from production agriculture to more of a science research agriculture," said class instructor Curtis Willems. "Our goal is not to necessarily get these kids into farming but to look at all the secondary jobs that are still available in agriculture. Just like the hydroponics."
At Highland's land lab on Thursday, students in the landscape class were thinning lettuce plants, digging a trench for a drip system and prepping an area for a landscape project using donated plants.
This is the second class junior Maggie Nicholls has taken with Dillard. She has most enjoyed aquaculture, a common project in East Valley high schools.
"We had to siphon the pump, add air bubbles to aerate," she said. "We learned you have to be really careful about the amount of things you put in there or you can put too much and kill the fish."
Nicholls took some of her new skills and started a garden at home this summer, growing tomatoes and cucumbers.
BEYOND THE CLASSROOM
The time spent working on agriculture education during high school years could result in scholarships, more competitive applications for college, and more focus for higher education, said Mark Hamilton, director of vocational, career and technical education at the Gilbert Unified School District.
"It used to be the kids in our (vocational education) classes and programs were thought of as not going on to school," Hamilton said. But studies that follow students after high school found in the last four or five years about 84 percent get education beyond high school, he said.
Mesa's Gless points to a former student who now works for McDonald's as a buyer, and another who used his agriculture experience to study soil science at Scottsdale Community College and went on to work for an oil drilling company.
"The new thing we're pushing is biotechnology, helping students to understand the importance of how biotech is changing," Gless said. "They're saying there will be jobs five years from now that we still don't know about yet because of the biotech changes."
The students not only participate in programs at their schools, but get involved in their communities.
As part of a national effort to donate 1 million service hours by FFA members, students at Chandler High raised funds and collected donations to send care packages to U.S. soldiers serving overseas. On Sept. 11, the students packed the boxes.
The Chandler students also focus on greenhouse projects. They are working on a large-scale hydroponic project with tomatoes and growing annuals in hanging baskets to sell to the public. They learn about chemistry when they mix nutrients, determine the amount of water needed for ideal growing and study light theories, instructor Kari Williams said.
"It's a good program that helps build young mature adults and helps you with college," said Irving Rios, 17, a senior at Chandler High School. "It helps you with getting a job. People look at FFA members as ideal kids."