MARICOPA — Budding farmers in Maricopa can rejoice as Maricopa Unified School District has decided to bring back the popular FFA program for high school students. FFA teaches students about agriculture and farming, but also leadership, technology and public speaking.

The FFA program left the district at the end of the 2011-12 school year with the last instructor, and a new instructor wasn’t found to fill the position — until now. Recent University of Arizona graduate and FFA alumna Victoria Rackley will begin her first position with MUSD this fall as the agriculture teacher and FFA adviser.

Interested students will enroll in Rackley’s agriculture class concurrently with their membership in FFA, and she already has a group of 19 students who have committed to the program.

“I’m really excited to be able to open those doors back up for the students to create a new tradition at Maricopa High School,” Rackley said. “I like what it teaches students as well. We teach agriculture, plants, animals — but there’s also that leadership component that comes in the program if they choose to do agriculture education.”

In the classroom, Rackley will first focus on introductions to the program, allowing students to dip their toes into the various areas of agriculture. Some of the units she has planned for the students are on plant life and growing strategies, animal care, sustainable practices and mechanics.

FFA operates with a three-circle model that requires three types of instruction. The first is classroom and lab work, then FFA extracurricular work for the club and also SAE, which is supervised agricultural experience. SAE is what most people think of when they think of FFA: students caring for livestock, growing crops and learning farm work skills in a simulated environment.

“Everybody has to have a project that they log hours for,” Rackley said. “I want to try to bring projects into the classroom that will kind of get them thinking, because the first thing that students will think of when they need to have a project is, it has to be an animal — and that’s not true.”

Rackley said students can get creative when it comes to choosing their projects, including caring for an at-home pet like a dog or cat, or stocking shelves in the produce department at the local grocery store. She hopes to reinforce this in the classroom with different farm-related projects, such as an incubator to hatch chicks or growing flowers for Mother’s Day.

In the FFA extracurricular component of the three-circle model, students will participate in statewide and national competitions in their field of choice. Rackley herself competed in the employment skills and leadership development category all four years of high school.

As part of this competition, Rackley and other FFA members submitted resumes and cover letters and were then given a mock job interview. Her senior year, she took home the grand prize at the state event.

“It took me all four years of high school to actually win a contest,” Rackley said. “It’s something that they work toward — it’s not going to happen in a year — but it was rewarding, because you can see that all of your hard work paid off in that one moment.”

These topics vary wildly from public speaking to flower arranging and everything in between. Sometimes students will choose to stick with one emphasis all four years, while other students choose different topics every semester.

“I think some of the challenges will be to kind of get them hooked on that FFA component because like you have them hooked already on the agriculture education part — all the fun things they’re going to do — but being in FFA is a commitment,” Rackley said. “You have to go to meetings, there’s officers, as there are with any CTSO (career and technical student organization), right? So I think just getting that initial buy-in will be the hardest part for me.”

In its infancy, the program will focus on familiarizing students with the program and its benefits. However, Rackley hopes to greatly expand the program and the available resources to do fun projects like greenhouse work, in-house farm animal care, woodworking and engine building.

There is also talk of the program moving to the new second high school at Murphy and Farrell roads, which will open in fall 2022.

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Katie Sawyer covers Maricopa and the surrounding area for PinalCentral, including city, education, business, crime and more. She can be reached at ksawyer@pinalcentral.com.