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Elmer Barrueta is only a sophomore at Santa Maria High School, but he is already working on his career path thanks to the school’s agriculture program.

The son of a local sharecropper, the 14-year-old wants to earn a bachelor’s degree in computer science at Cal Poly and help design a global positioning system-based program that will help field tractors work more efficiently in his father’s fields.

Elmer is among about 30 area Future Farmers of America members representing schools from Arroyo Grande to Santa Ynez this week at the 83rd national FFA Convention in Indianapolis, Ind. Twenty of them are from Santa Maria High.

The Saints agriculture program and El Camino Junior High science teacher Luke Laurie sparked Elmer’s interest in both agriculture and school.

“At first, I wasn’t such a good science student,” Elmer said. “Mr. Laurie said since I was an ag family, I should focus on that. Ag science is an excellent curriculum that has me more interested in school.”

Elmer is part of an agronomy team — with Andrea Calderon and Eduardo Coronel — competing in the national finals at Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the Indianapolis Colts. The team finished second in the state, but will be representing California at the finals because the champion team from Tulelake won’t be making the trip.

“We’re excited about having a team go back and compete,” added Melissa Flory-Guerra, an instructor in the program.

Agronomy teams are required to identify crops, weeds, seeds, insects, diseases, plant nutrient deficiencies and disorders, and crop grading and pricing. Participants complete a series of team and individual activities that earn points.

Learning to identify pests in competition is especially important to junior Eduardo Coronel. The 17-year-old has been studying agronomy only two years, but already plans on making it a career. He wants to study chemistry at Cal Poly and become a pest control advisor.

The Santa Maria FFA program has also had a strong influence on Andrea Calderon. The 16-year-old senior is a typical FFA kid. She raised sheep and goats to show at the Santa Barbara County Fair. She plans on studying crop science at Cal Poly and wants to become an agriculture instructor.

A separate land judging team from Santa Maria High — Evan Baldo Lopez, Rosa Diaz, Miriam Mendez and Jose Luis Lua — won the school’s 54th state championship since 1969. Evan and Rosa finished as the top two individuals at the state finals. The team won the championship in May at the state competition at Cal Poly. The Saints beat five other teams, knocking off a team from Tulare which had edged them in another competition earlier in the year.

“There’s always a bit of a team rivalry thing there, but it’s a fun competition,” said Marc DeBernardi, agriculture department head at Santa Maria High.

They’re all making the trip to the convention as a reward for their efforts.

Santa Maria High will also send 11 graduates to the national convention to receive their American FFA degree, the highest rank in the program. The students are: Mason Silva, Margarito Lua, Susana Armenta, Juan Hernandez, Michael Benson, Emanuel Hernandez, Joseph Gobea, Jose Sandoval, Diego Martinez, Walter Mendoza and Sergio Carmona. American degrees are awarded to students who have graduated from high school.

“It’s pretty incredible,” said instructor Luis Guerra.

The South Coast region, which runs from Santa Clara to Los Angeles County, has 44 students earning their American FFA degrees, and Santa Maria has 11 of them, Guerra said.

Pioneer Valley and Arroyo Grande high schools both have a pair of graduates earning their American degrees — Catherine Sanders and Ty Wheeler from Pioneer Valley and Elizabeth Hurd and J.D. Fulmer from AGHS.

Despite having two state championship teams in tree pruning and tree judging — earned at competitions at Fresno State University in January and April, respectively — Righetti is sending only four representatives to the convention. Freshmen Abel Maldonado and Michael Guerra will accompany instructor Miguel Guerra, who is judging the national marketing plan competition, and retired teacher Stan Rose, who is a national poultry judge.

Sophomore Riley Nilsen is leading a contingent of 13 Nipomo High FFA members to the convention. Riley won the state championship in creed speaking in April at Selland Arena in Fresno and will compete in the national finals in Indianapolis. Riley had to recite the FFA creed and answer a series of questions from a panel in front of an audience of around 3,000.

This is the first time in two years Nipomo will attend the convention. The Titans will also be one of 18 chapters recognized as a two-star chapter in Indianapolis, according to instructor Josh Rodrigues.

Two Nipomo graduates — Jenna Bennet and Kayla Gardner — have earned their American degrees.

Three students, including two national delegates, and two advisors make up the contingent from Santa Ynez High School. Santa Ynez chapter president Emily Shimamura and secretary Kylin Costa are national delegates. Chapter vice president Katie Enticknap and Sentinel Samantha Kelly are also attending. Ross Petersen will be receiving his American degree.

More information about FFA and the national convention can be found at www.ffa.org on the web.

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