Members of the Future Farmers of America club at Ann Sobrato High School have learned to do more with less during lean economic times, but are hoping new developments with their water rights will provide better farming opportunities for their program.
The Sobrato FFA group has created a quaint agricultural haven at its Burnett Avenue location – which boasts an empty state-of-the-art greenhouse and a variety of animals – but one vital element is lacking for this highly popular, 8-year-old club centered around growing plants and breeding animals: Water.
Joe Martin, agriculture mechanics and veterinary science teacher at Sobrato says harvesting the group’s field “just isn’t economically feasible.”
Students have access to more than 10 acres of land on the FFA farm and want to strengthen their program by adding row crops such as alfalfa or soybeans; but they cannot do so unless there is an adequate water supply to irrigate the land. Martin explained that the cost of watering the field – about $2,000 per year – is too high for students to receive a return on their investment. The district has also run into roadblocks when it comes to securing water rights for the Sobrato FFA Farm.
But in this past month, more and more pressure has been put on the Morgan Hill Unified School District after concerned FFA parents and community members questioned why the farm wasn’t receiving enough water access.
Janet Burback, former Live Oak High School FFA member and Sobrato Ag Boosters President wants to know why Live Oak High FFA has obtained access to water their fields, located on Main Avenue, while Sobrato remains high and dry.
“I think that there’s a lot of potential out there. It would open a lot of doors for them,” said Burback.
A rancher in the Morgan Hill area and parent of Sobrato FFA students for the past six years, Burback is familiar with the issues surrounding agricultural water. She is confident that if an agreement can be reached between the water district and the school district on the farm’s water rights, the Boosters will “find a way” to secure funding.
Martin said that the program has yet to encounter friction from the school district over their water usage, and is trying to keep it that way.
“If we use [water] too much the school might complain,” explained Martin.
Between washing the barn aisle, taking care of the animals and occasionally watering the farms’ few plants, he added that the FFA club is conscious about using water sparingly.
Until water rights are sorted out, the farm’s state-of-the-art greenhouse and field lie untapped, two resources Martin believes would help teach students the value of sustainability and living green.
Gaining water rights for the farm is a complicated process that began nearly two years ago and could take another year to wade through. Still, MHUSD Superintendent Wes Smith points out “certainly there have been enough questions asked lately that we will make it a priority.”
Currently the water lines supplying the farm contain potable residential water. At $200 per acre-foot - the volume of water required to irrigate one acre of land - residential water holds a much higher price tag than agricultural water, which on average costs only $19 an acre-foot.
With the cost of irrigating their field annually sitting at more than $2,000 annually, Martin said it’s likely the school district would not appreciate the farm using the full amount of water needed for its crops and state-of-the-art greenhouse to thrive.
The Santa Clara Valley Water District explained that the original property deed for the Sobrato campus granted rights to three turnouts, or irrigation attachments, on the water line directly adjacent to the field. The water line is a 60-inch reclaimed water pipe that supplies water to the area from several nearby reservoirs, making the addition of a turnout tricky said Jerry De La Piedra, Program Administrator for the Santa Clara Valley Water District.
But no one at the water district or the MHUSD is sure whether Sobrato still has the right to those turnouts, because the original property lines have been changed several times. Currently the farm uses water running directly from the school, which is too expensive and difficult to irrigate the field with, according to Martin.
De La Piedra explained that it is up to the school district to seek out their legal rights, in order to determine if a turnout can be installed for the Sobrato FFA property.
Two years ago, the water district sent the school district a memo detailing four options for providing the farm with water – the most expensive of these options being a turnout. One of the other options included using the Sobrato school’s pump to water the FFA field at an agriculture rate.
After following the issue for 4 years Martin believes that the pump may not be able to withstand the demand of watering the field. When it comes to irrigating fields, he explained that a turnout – which could cost more than $8,000 in addition to the annual operating costs - is the smartest choice for irrigation.
“We tried our best to go through the options with them,” said De La Peidra “the ball is in their court”
The issue was previously at a standstill as Smith said the district was waiting to seat its two new and one reelected board member on Dec. 10, before deciding which option they wanted to proceed with.
Smith, however is confident the matter can be resolved and also emphasized the value of the Sobrato FFA chapter, which is one of the district’s highest performing programs.
“We want to respond as quickly as we can whenever our students are in need,” he said.
Once its analysis of the four irrigation options is complete, district facilities staff will be making a recommendation to the MHUSD Board of Education for what route to take, according to Smith.
The Sobrato FFA field is not the only place in need of water, for that matter. The property also boasts a winter perennial garden tended by FFA students and special needs students.
Smoothing out its water woes will hopefully allow the Sobrato FFA program to offer more educational resources for students interested in horticulture, Martin added. There is only so much that can be done with a limited water supply, he explained.
“You have to have water to grow,” Martin stressed. “Right now we are trying to be as sustainable as possible and give the kids an education.”
The Sobrato FFA program clearly has a growing fan base with more than 300 students. Staffed with four teachers, FFA is open to any student and only requires that participants be enrolled in an agriculture class, explained Martin.
He added that students often enroll because they are curious about agriculture, while others “just want a chance to get out of school for (FFA) leadership conferences,” he chuckled.
The FFA program places a huge emphasis on making leaders out of its students – most of which include “city kids,” Martin noted. He added that the FFA gladly welcomes “anyone” and not just “farm kids.”
As an FFA alumnus himself Martin is an advocate for advancement in the club, using his own money to help establish a hog breeding program at the school.
In June of last year, a hog named Big Mamma joined the Sobrato farm and was the first of a group of pigs that will help offset the cost for students to show an animal at the fair. Students are able to turn a larger profit when selling their animals at market, because they do not have to purchase them from an outside farm.
“We are trying to get higher quality animals at a cheaper price,” Martin noted.
Cost reduction is the name of the game at the FFA - which is part of the Sobrato general curriculum and does not have a set budget. Currently the program has very little overhead, operating largely on the generosity of others Martin notes. Trailers, tractors and other equipment on the farm are donated. When something needs repairs, agriculture mechanics students are “eager for the work” Martin said.
Over in the barn, the program’s four teachers pay out of pocket to help supplement the costly overhead of breeding and raising animals. If and when the FFA farm finally receives the amount of water that it needs, Martin is already dreaming of the additional opportunities it will generate for his students. Potential ventures include a pumpkin patch in October, which would provide older students a chance to engage with children who visit the farm to pick out their own pumpkins. Martin would also like to see FFA students use the greenhouse to grow their own flowers for flower design classes.
Though a solution may not be in the cards tomorrow, Martin, who has now been teaching at Sobrato for four years, said he will continue to fight to provide water to the farm.
“I just want it for the kids,” he said.