School may be out for the summer, but learning and hard work never take a break at EPISD’s only FFA Farm.
Coronado High School Senior Jonathan Carrizal earlier this week took the wheel of the giant swather, cutting the alfalfa surrounding the 36-acre farm on Lindbergh Avenue. A few yards away, fellow T-Bird Chris Thatch, a sophomore, bathed his calf Magnus to get it prepped for competition.
The working farm gives students a chance to earn credit while learning about agriculture and develop skills for life. Teachers Armando Flores and Jennifer Matejcek spend their summer days on the farm – nurturing the livestock, crops and keeping up the grounds where calves, goats, a pig and chickens live. Students work and volunteer all summer working with the animals and preparing the hay for their livestock and public sale.
“The common misconception about that program is that you have to be a farmer or rancher to be involved in FFA,” said Flores, a lifelong farmer who lives on farm grounds. “That’s not quite the case. We’ve got lots of urbanized students participating with us. We emphasize creating great leaders and great public speakers that can go out into the workplace and be great employees for businesses out there.”
Carrizal stepped out of the swather after plotting perfect lines of trimmed hay.
“I’ve had a farm as long as I can remember. I know how to work and what to do,” he said. “I like the lifestyle. It’s a beautiful day.”
An experienced farmer, Carrizal puts his knowledge and rodeo skills to use to represent Coronado in competitions. This month, he earned fourth place in the Texas FFA Rodeo for team roping – a skill he’s been honing since age 4.
“It’s going to help me in the future,” he said. “It’s what I want to do, and it’ll help me get there.”
Thatch, on the other hand, came to the farm with no experience. He spent much of the morning blowing out the hair of his calf, which he plans to enter in the show steer category in competitions and take to market to sell. Like some students raising and competing with livestock, Thatch actually owns Magnus.
“I just live in a normal, small house in the city, so I would never have an opportunity to do any of this stuff without this place,” he said, while finishing up Magnus’ bath ritual. “You can make a lot of money if you win.”
Thatch isn’t sure the farm life is in his future but he knows the experience will give him a boost later in life.
“If I move into something like agriculture, owning steer or running a ranching or something, I’ll know how to handle these things,” he said. “And for college, they like to see that you stuck with something, so I’ll try to do this all four years of high school.”
The farm also just recently took in two baby goats, which Matejcek began training to walk and brace – key elements for competition later in the fall. They jumped and pulled on their leashes but the experienced rancher knew just how to rein them in.
“I wish more kids would understand the opportunity they have here and try it out,” she said, bracing a 3-month-old goat to show off the muscle definition in his legs and back.
Matejcek enjoys the show portion of FFA and the experience it gives students to learn about animal husbandry: how to work with the livestock, keep them healthy, groom them, raise them and build up their muscle for show and eventual sale. Like Flores, it’s a lifestyle she enjoys and wants to share with students.
“When we go to market, we sell to generate money for our program,” she said, describing how the livestock are great buys because the animals are well taken care of by students. “You’ll never have a bigger turkey than one you buy from a student.”
It also gives those students like Carrizal, who grew up on a farm, a chance to advance his skills so they can raise livestock on their own or get a jump start on a career as a veterinarian.
“There’s no other program like it in EPISD,” Flores said. “I venture to say that we probably have one of the most technologically advanced ag programs when it comes to equipment in Texas. We’re very fortunate that we’ve got a full-on production farm, and it’s in the middle of El Paso.”
And while the farm life is a big part of the agricultural program, Flores stressed the importance of the leadership curriculum taught in the classroom at Coronado, including parliamentary procedure and public speaking.
“Our students excel in that because we really try and knock it out of the park when it comes to public speaking,” Flores said. “When we can get our kids to be good public speakers and be able to get in front of a crowd, that’s going to make our programs shine above all others.”