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Seeds of Greatness

...are planted as Vineland High School revives its FFA chapter.

Today’s Vineland FFA Chapter
by Mickey Brandt
Photo from 1932, the first recorded Vineland High Future Farmers of America.
Photo from 1932, the first recorded Vineland High Future Farmers of America.

Here in Vineland, we have hundreds of acres of peach trees and small family truck farms; we have giant columbines and hand-picked crops; we have spring, summer, fall, even winter crops. We have one of the largest produce auction centers on the East Coast, both giant and modest food processing and export operations, huge transportation routes, and farm stands selling unmatched Jersey Fresh produce.

About a quarter of the land mass of our city, New Jersey’s largest in area, is under cultivation. Vineland doesn’t have just a heritage of farming, something from the past; it has a present, modern behemoth.

Now, at Vineland High School South, it is the second year of a building block for the future agricultural sector of the local economy and far beyond—a classroom plus a hands-on agriculture program and a rebirth of an FFA organization.

Annaliese Castellini, the “ag teacher” and FFA advisor, heads a team that has quickly assembled a stellar program, which attracts the curious, the farm-

oriented, and the high-achieving student.

To support the agriculture study efforts, the Vineland Board of Education funded the construction of a large, automated, state-of-the-art greenhouse, which grows plants all year and is an essential part of both the curriculum and the FFA.

It maintains a temperature that is set. Its shade cloth opens and closes depending on conditions. Students are active participants in the automation process and the seeding, sprouting, and cultivation of the wide diversity of plants.

“The board, administration, and community are very supportive of what we do,” Castellini said. “They want programs like this back in schools.”

The agriculture program currently offers three courses, with more to come. Current courses are Intro to Agriculture (What is agriculture & why do we need it?); Plant Science (How do we grow our own food?); and Food Science & Safety (How do we take the food and process it to get it to consumers?)

These classes follow the Curriculum for Agricultural Science Education (CASE). CASE Institutes provide educators with training and resources to teach these courses to high school students.

Castellini was recently chosen as one of 22 educators from the northeast to receive a scholarship from NJ Farm Credit East. A total of $33,000 in scholarships were awarded to support the educators’ attendance at CASE institutes this summer.

In addition, as the FFA advisor, she revived the new Vineland High Chapter of FFA, which is part of a huge national network of agriculture-minded students, established in 1928. FFA, which formerly stood for Future Farmers of America, is now called The National FFA organization.

Students learn by doing in the large working greenhouse at Vineland High School South. Joana Jimnez-Colin carefully waters greenhouse plants.
Students learn by doing in the large working greenhouse at Vineland High School South. Joana Jimnez-Colin carefully waters greenhouse plants. Photo: Vineland Public Schools

“This change was to reflect all parts of agriculture including the science and business of it.” Castellini noted. “FFA promotes agriculture through premier leadership, personal growth, and career success. New Jersey FFA was established the same founding year of 1928 and there were 19 original chapters, and we are proud Vineland High School was one of them. Vineland FFA flourished for several decades but sadly came to an end in the mid 1960s. The dissolution was most likely due to the move to the current high school location and the retirement of Mr. Irving E. Bach, longtime FFA advisor.”

Vineland FFA was officially chartered on October 18 last year. Since then, it’s been a very active chapter with students attending many state events and competitions as well as hosting events at VHS. Vineland FFA members have competed at Rutgers University in CDEs (Career Development Events). In a recent competition, four Vineland chapter members competed in different areas of veterinary science coordinated by industry professionals. Other events have been in nursery landscape, floriculture, agriculture sales and meat evaluation.

Later this month, Vineland will attend the New Jersey FFA State Convention with 19 members. Five members have already won awards and multiple students are competing in speaking events.

The FFA is actively planning for next year a 10-day Agriculture in Ireland trip provided by EF Educational Tours. Students are raising funds for the trip through many channels, including selling supporter sponsorships for as much as $2,500.

No surprise, Castellini was an FFA leader at Burlington Regional High School and served in prominent positions, including state vice-president in 2008-09. (“I went through the program, I know all the great benefits,” she said.). She studied agriculture business at Delaware Valley University, graduating in May 2012.

She grew up on a farm in Jacobstown, New Jersey, and worked for 10 years in the agriculture sales industry before making the jump to education.

Rebecca Zang, Jiya Patel, Jimnez-Colin, and teacher Mrs. Castellini. Photo: Vineland Public Schools
Rebecca Zang, Jiya Patel, Jimnez-Colin, and teacher Mrs. Castellini.

Castellini’s educational philosophy is as straight-forward as she is.

“I teach to let them know how it’s all connected,” she said. “Agriculture is not simply farming—it’s transportation, food safety, processing, import and export, cold storage, business, and a lot more. I try to connect everything directly to their lives.”

She pointed out that just two percent of agricultural employees are production workers, while 54 percent of the U.S. labor force works in an aspect of it.

“I don’t expect them to be farmers,” she added. “I wouldn’t want them to be farmers; I stress to them there are so many other opportunities.”

Both teacher and students seem energized about what they are doing and having this (literally) living section of their wing at the high school. Castellini seems to have ways of reaching the students where they are.

“I actually found a TikTok video about residential land use,” she noted. “It showed particularly how an inappropriate slope of the land can lead to flooding in the yard. Everybody pays attention when it’s on TikTok!”

One more no-surprise: Annalise and her husband Nicholas have a farm in Vineland. They live there with their two sons, Gardner, 9, and Hayden, 1.

FFA Saturday Plant Sale

The Annual Plant Sale, in its second week, will take place on Saturday, May 18, from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. at Vineland High School, 3010 East Chestnut Avenue.

The group will be selling vegetable plants, such as tomatoes, peppers, green beans, squash, and zucchini; herbs such as basil, parsley, and thyme; and flowers including geraniums, sweet potato vines, gazanias, zinnias, New Guinea impatiens, and coleus.

The students conduct several plant and floral sales during the year, both to the students and the public. The sales usually sell out quickly.

“When a student is walking in the hallway with a beautiful rose and somebody asks where did you get that, it tends to drive sales,” said teacher Annalise Castellini.

Saturday’s plant sale is being held in conjunction with the Vineland Green & Wellness Fair featuring fun displays, promotions, demonstrations, workshops, goods for sale, food, music, and fun.