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California High School ag department named most outstanding program in state

Program now competing for regional title by Garrett Fuller | August 2, 2023 at 4:00 a.m.
Courtesy/California, Missouri FFA Chapter Facebook page — California High School agriculture teachers pose July 26 with Missouri State University officials after winning the Outstanding Secondary Program award at the Missouri Vocational Agriculture Teachers Association's summer conference in Springfield. California teachers pictured, from second from left, are Adam Bieri, Gary Reichel and Gary Morris.

California High School's agriculture department was recognized as outstanding for its variety of hands-on opportunities and inclusiveness.

The Missouri Vocational Agriculture Teachers Association (MVATA) recognized the California program with the Outstanding Secondary Program award July 26 at the MVATA summer conference in Springfield. Instructors Adam Bieri, Gary Morris and Gary Reichel were present to accept the award, which was sponsored by Missouri State University and its alumni.

Offering a variety of learning opportunities for everyone helps set California High School's program apart, Reichel said.

"We have a lot of hands-on opportunities, where we have the Denker agriculture center, our greenhouse and a lot of opportunities in the shop with the laser engraving and 3D printers," he said. "The kids are able to use and get a lot more hands-on experience with the support of our administration and community, and just our students who have bought into wanting those opportunities to learn by utilizing hands-on applications. ... They're able to put what they've learned in the classroom to real-life applications."

Traditionally, agriculture programs have been tailored toward students who lived on farms and had the space at home to learn. Reichel and other agriculture instructors acknowledged that agriculture today has grown beyond farms and ranches.

"There's so many more students that are involved in the agriculture program and the FFA side of it that they don't live traditionally on farms anymore, but they still want that knowledge," Reichel said. "Being able to give them real-world experience, just because you live in town doesn't mean you might not go on to work at a production facility or become a veterinarian."

The agriculture department constructed two facilities -- the Denker Livestock Education Center and a new swine barn -- to help give students without space at home a place to store and care for their own project animals. It has helped pique the interest of those who lacked an agricultural background, such as two students who went from no agriculture interest or experience to growing their own pigs for the upcoming Moniteau County fair.

"Whether a student wants to learn more about plants, animals, construction, sales and business, food science, or landscaping, they have the ability to do so in our various classrooms and labs," Morris said. "We are very fortunate to have the facilities available to teach our students hands-on skills that they can use outside the classroom."

California R-I Superintendent Daniel Williams praised the high school agriculture department, adding that the recognition was made possible by the students, teachers and opportunities at the school.

"Our ag department has added some of the most cutting-edge technology and equipment over the past two years to enhance the learning experiences of our students," he said. "None of this would be possible without what I would say are the three best ag instructors in the state of Missouri and ones who dedicate countless hours of their time to ensure that their students can capitalize on every opportunity available to enhance their learning as it relates to ag education."

Williams said more than 60 percent of California High School students participate in agriculture programs and FFA.

The department will now compete with other agriculture departments in the Midwestern region and, hopefully, reach the national level. Instructors will learn in August if they move on beyond the regional level.

Reichel said he submitted the department's application for awards back in April to the state MVATA vice president to be judged. He added that he didn't learn about the recognition until right before the conference, where agriculture instructors from all over the state gather.

Reichel added it was the first time California's program had been recognized at the state level with an outstanding award. Morris said the recognition not only applies to the program itself, but also reflects on the community.

"It was an incredible recognition for our program, school, and community," he said. "I have said many times that we have a tremendous amount of school and community support for our program and that shows in all of the opportunities and experiences that we can provide to our students."

"We have great kids in our program with a large number of parents that we know we can always count (on) to help out when needed," Morris continued. "We wouldn't be able to do all the things that we do without all the supporters that we have in our corner."

Despite the recognition, instructors are continually advancing technology to stay up-to-date with what is being used in the real world, Reichel said. In addition to a new hydroponic growing system in the plant sciences classroom, he said students will be experimenting with drones and new tractor technology in the agriculture mechanics classroom. Students will also be experimenting with feed efficiency -- utilizing radio frequency identification chips to measure how much feed a calf requires to gain weight, enabling producers to make herd management decisions -- and seeing how the ongoing drought affects corn production at the school.

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