Perris High School class of 2021 graduate Miguel Soto does typical teenager stuff. You know — skateboarding, hanging out with friends, learning everything there is to know about broccoli, showing rabbits, competitively scrutinizing artichokes. OK, so those last three activities may not be the first things that come to mind as customary teen doings. Yet they were instrumental in enabling Miguel to become the inaugural recipient of a $1,000 scholarship newly established by Altman Plants’ Lake Mathews nursery in Southern California.
In his time at Perris High, Miguel was one of 800 students involved in the agriculture science program. The campus is located 12 miles from the Lake Mathews location. If that sounds like a supersized program, indeed it is — around one-third of the student body gets some degree of ag science education experience.
Seniors graduating from Perris High and active in FFA who will be attending college in pursuit of a career in horticulture or agriculture are eligible to apply for the scholarship, which is intended to help cover higher education costs. Miguel immersed himself about as much as a student could, exploring both the plant and animal sides and competing in statewide competitions and attending leadership conferences. In 2020, during his junior year, Miguel and his three teammates won the FFA state championship in vegetable crop judging.
“We go to a university or wherever the field day’s going to be, and they have a bunch of, probably 80 different specimens out. It could be a disease, it could be just identifying the vegetable or an insect, and you just have to know what it is. And there’s a judging portion of it where you have to know which (of various vegetable specimens) are best. You have to rank them in order and give reasons on them. It’s like public speaking. That helped me a lot with my public speaking,” Miguel said, Miguel said in an August interview at Perris High.
Traveling for competitions and conferences — Sacramento, Chico, Fresno, and Davis all got named-dropped — was a major highlight. Championship bragging rights didn’t carry much weight in his family, however. Both of Miguel’s older sisters represented Perris High in competitions and won state championships, in horticulture and vegetable crop judging, respectively.
Miguel credits his sisters and their involvement for seeding his interest in ag science and FFA. While he enjoyed the animal side (he had a pig and worked with rabbits too), he was most passionate about vegetable crop judging and the competitions. A key part of that was learning a whole lot about identifying plants, weeds, diseases, and insects.
The next stop on his educational journey is 45 miles northwest at Cal Poly Pomona, where he has just begun his pursuit of an agricultural science degree.
While volunteering that nervousness is part of the emotional mix surrounding college, “I’m just excited to learn more about what I love to do here,” Miguel said, speaking inside the ag science building on campus.
Miguel’s ag science teachers, particularly Douglas Cousins, Aaron Nering, and Chelsye DeBoor, have inspired him, he said, to someday want to give to students what those educators gave to him, his sisters, fellow classmates, and some of his friends. And that wasn’t just about sparking an interest in various plant- or animal-related subjects.
“As a teenager, you do some stupid things. And I, every time I would veer off a little bit, one of my advisors would be there and say, ‘Are you OK?’ They’d be there for me. And in terms of the field, this was a way to keep me distracted, a good type of distraction, keep my head in the right place.”
It seems clear that he was able to do just that, surprising himself along the way — in a good way.
“In terms of agriculture, I didn’t think that I would have been able to memorize the things that I did. I didn’t think that I would have been able to speak face to face with a person (a judge in competition) for that long, with that intensity, because we had to speak pretty loud. I was pretty shy coming into high school, but I feel like this refined my social skills in general.”
Encouraging broader skill sets, such as public speaking, is a vital part of the program, said Cousins, one of its five teachers.
“Almost everything we do there’s a public speaking portion or some kind of leadership portion. For example, the rabbit (showmanship) part, half the battle is presenting it to the judge. Knowing it but how you present it to the judge, and almost everything we do has that portion.”
Cousins said the FFA’s career development events cover around three dozen areas.
“We have a handful here because there’s so much to learn. Miguel was studying that for three years. That’s how much time it takes to get the experience to get to a place where you are competing for that win, that championship, so there’s a lot to them. But they come out with skills that they can actually use on a job. That’s why they’re called career development events. And they get the skills that a lot of kids don’t get, like the speaking skill. Shaking hands, basic stuff that a lot of kids leave high school without.”
Post-high school, Miguel is getting some quality plant science experience at Lake Mathews, where he is working as a Technical Services Assistant. His main responsibilities are height tracking, soil tests, electrical conductivity and pH tests, and chemical inventory.