ORANGE – Every morning around dawn, senior Robert Perez arrives to Orange High to care for Alfalfa.
It doesn't matter if it's pouring rain, or a holiday, Perez treks across the eerily quite campus, heading straight for the school's farm to feed, groom and exercise his chocolate-colored, 800-pound steer.
Afterward, the student cleans out the stalls and prepares hay for when he returns at the end of the day to repeat the ritual.
"The agriculture program teaches students about responsibility more than any other class," said Perez, who hopes to become a dairy farmer. "It's a lot of work. But it's good real-life training."
Perez is one of 150 students who belong to Orange High's agriculture program, where they learn principles of farming, including caring for livestock and growing vegetation.
Students learn about landscaping, veterinary care and similar fields, and often go on to work as veterinarians, florists, Disneyland landscapers, and gardeners who grow the turf for Angel Stadium.
"There is always the perception that since Orange County is no longer centered around agriculture, then programs like these are no longer relevant," said teacher Patti Williams, head of the agriculture program. "But the program doesn't just prepare students for working in farms. It's much more than that."
The school's 2-acre farm, tucked behind the softball field, has served as the program's living classroom for thousands of students for six decades. The school's agriculture program began when Orange High opened in 1903, with the original farm located at the current site at Chapman University. The campus and farm moved to the current spot in 1953 to make room for Chapman.
The farm today includes a greenhouse, garden plots, pastures, animal pens, an orange tree orchard and more than four dozen steer, pigs, goats, lambs, llamas and other animals.
Twenty-four students care for the animals. They can spend 20 hours or more each week, including weekends and holidays, feeding and grooming the livestock. There are various classes tied to the farm.
The students regularly take the smaller animals to local elementary schools as travelling petting zoos.
"You get children who have never seen a goat or even a pig before," said senior Maica de Castro, who loves showing off her Bob the goat.
A handful of students raise steer from the time they're calves until they are full grown, when they weigh up to 1,200 to 1,400 pounds. These students spend much of the school year training the steer, developing their posture and teaching them how to walk with halters so they can compete in the Orange County Fair each summer.
After the fair, the steer go to slaughter, and the beef is given to community members who sponsored the animals.
Junior Katlynn Buzzard is raising and training Durango, a black-haired steer she's had since October.
"We spend a lot of time with these guys," she said. "But you also have to remember these animals won't be with you forever."
Buzzard said students are constantly taught that these animals are not pets. She said most students understand this, and learn to avoid emotional attachments.
Last year, Buzzard's family sponsored another steer the student raised and trained. When the animal was slaughtered, her family received the beef.
"I had no problem eating the animal," she said. "The meat was better than anything you can find in the market."
Orange High ag program
Farm size: 2 acres
Animals include: alpacas, llamas, baby doll sheep, miniature horses, Nigerian dwarf goats, pygmy goats, pigs and steer
Large livestock: Steer weighing 1,495 pounds; pig weighing 275 pounds; and lamb weighing 164 pounds
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