For students at VTEC it’s all about agriculture

One South Valley high school is all about FFA. Visalia Technical Early College (VTEC) is located on 35-acres of former College of the Sequoias’ (COS) agricultural land. With its first freshmen class starting nearly four years ago, students are given the opportunity to follow one of three pathways – Animal and Veterinary Science, Ag Systems Technology, or Ag Business & Food Science.

Students may attend college classes while fulfilling their high school requirements, giving them a jumpstart on their further education. All students must also join FFA, said Jennifer Potter, one of the school’s FFA advisors.

“VTEC is unique in its modified block schedule,” Potter said of the public charter school.

The schedule aligns with COS scheduling and students may take English, math or Ag Science classes receiving college credits prior to actually graduating high school. Not every student is expected to go on to college, Potter said. But, they “gain a lifelong learning attitude.”

Any student within the Visalia Unified District is eligible for VTEC – it has open enrollment until it reaches its cap, and it then goes to a lottery system, Potter explained. Currently the school is just under its 300-max mark. Classroom sizes are smaller than many other public schools.

VTEC FFA Chapter President Anders Vargas practices showing his pig, Miss Piggy, in training for various upcoming Jackpot shows. Nancy Vigran/Valley Voice

Anders Vargas, now a senior, started with the VTEC when it opened. While attending high school, this year he is also taking two college classes at the COS Tulare campus – Intro to Animal Science and Small Ruminant Science. Following the Animal and Veterinary Science pathway, he has worked with many animals at VTEC, his favorite being swine.

“I love pigs,” he said, referencing their intelligence and personalities. Vargas also seems to love his school.

“It’s really hands on. You’re outside a lot, to see if the lessons you’ve learned really work outside.”

Through one of his classes, he and his classmates have learned to ear notch, cut tails and clip teeth of piglets born at the school. The school owns a few sows and the piglets born at the school are offered to VTEC students to purchase as project show animals. Additional FFA and 4-H students from within the Visalia Unified School districts have a chance to purchase those animals not chosen by VTEC students. Other livestock are offered to others from outside districts, as well.

Vargas chose his piglet, Miss Piggy, at a young age for showmanship and market purposes. He and the other students are responsible for care of all of the hogs on campus including feeding, watering, cleaning up after, general care and preparing them for the show ring.

Miss Piggy “stood out more,” Vargas said. “She’s eye appealing, has a good ham and a nice straight back.”

Miss Piggy is a Chester White. Her dam, Pickles, is a purebred, registered campus pig and the sire is a Chester White boar from an outside source. Vargas and fellow hog enthusiast, sophomore Kimberly Holguin, were there for delivery of the piglets. There were seven live piglets and two stillborn, which is not unusual for a first-time sow, Holguin said.

Holguin, too, chose a piglet from the litter, named Pumbaa, after the warthog character in The Lion King. She, also, has fallen in love with pigs, but also pretty much with all the campus livestock. She fills in for Jimmie Shepherd, a VTEC junior, in taking care of the school’s 140 laying hens.

Kimberly Holguin, a sophomore, tends to VTEC’s 140 laying hens when the regular student of the project is unavailable. Holguin’s main focus is on hogs, but she fills in with any of the animals, whenever needed. Nancy Vigran/Valley Voice

It was a much smaller flock until the school added 95 pullets in January. At four months of age, they aren’t laying eggs yet, but in a few months will definitely add to the egg production, just one of the home-grown items available in the school’s farm store. It is up to Shepherd or Holguin to feed and water the hens, clean their large pen, and to collect and wash the eggs for market.

But, Holguin’s heart belongs to pigs. She became partial to them, she said, when she was able to help midwife a litter. After she’s finished with school, she wants to specialize in hogs and is willing to move, if necessary, to find a position she would want. But, maybe, she said, there will be something available in California with “Some little gem of a company.”

Regarding her schooling, she said, “At other high schools, they teach, but you don’t get the experience [a student receives at VTEC].”

Holguin was accepted as a freshman and plans to attend VTEC through graduation.

For Brittney Dempsey, a junior and FFA chapter sentinel, it is more about sheep. Her family has a background in sheep, which her aunt and uncle raise. She is involved in breeding projects and showmanship and has her own personal animals, as well as FFA project animals. She works with White-face, Black-face and Speckle-face sheep.

“They’re gentler [than pigs],” she said.

Junior Brittney Dempsey bottle-fed Izzy, a Speckle-face sheep, because she purchased him from a breeder whose ewe had triplets. It is difficult for a ewe to care for three, so when they have triplets, often one is pulled and handfed. Nancy Vigran/Valley Voice

Dempsey enjoys the hands-on experience of VTEC, especially working alongside the school’s veterinarian, Dr. Lindsey Eby. The veterinarian is called whenever there are new babies or an animal is ill, as well as for regular vet checks in the livestock. When she comes out, students are able to watch her work. And, they often learn how to do things such as giving vaccinations.

Dempsey can often be found at the same Jackpot shows as Vargas and Holguin, but with her lambs and sheep. She keeps several sheep at the school. Students are allowed to keep their animals there, as long as they feed and care for them. They are even allowed to board their horses there, with large pastures available. The school also keeps three horses of its own horses which are utilized in an elective PE Equine class offered on Fridays.

Besides horses, sheep, swine and chickens there are a couple of cows at VTEC, one dairy project and one beef project of students. The school also has a large vegetable garden and plants alfalfa on some of its acreage. The VTEC Farm Store opened in October, 2017. It is open weekday afternoons during the school year, and offers freshly grown vegetables and eggs.

Besides crops and animals, there is a large enrollment in the Ag Systems Technology pathway with students learning welding, plumbing and how to operate and repair tractors and other farm equipment.

For more information on VTEC, call (559) 622-3212.

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