Ag Teachers’ Enduring Role as Partners in Sonoma-Marin’s Agricultural Heritage

Written By: Tim Tesconi
Published: February 11, 2022

More than 30 years after his death, J. Wesley Jamison, the legendary agriculture instructor at Santa Rosa High School, remains a revered mentor to many of the students who were under his demanding tutelage while they learned the basics of animal husbandry.

Jamison looms large as an agricultural instructor who made a lasting difference. But everyday nearly two dozen ag educators in Sonoma and Marin counties are changing lives and doing their part to keep the farm sector strong and viable. Sonoma County Farm Bureau leaders recognize ag teachers as an integral part of the intricate network of a dynamic and thriving farm economy.
During the Golden Age of Agriculture in Sonoma County, Jamison, who taught at Santa Rosa High from 1931 to 1968, cultivated leaders, singling out the best and brightest for roles in Sonoma County agriculture and beyond. He not only gave young men –in Jamison’s era it was only boys in FFA – a classroom education but opportunities to succeed whether in farming, agricultural education, banking or business.

Steve Olson, 79, the retired Santa Rosa Junior College administrator and agriculture educator, was among the students guided by “Mr. Jamison.” The guidance continued long after Olson graduated, went to college and started his long career in education. In fact, Jamison kept in almost daily contact with some of his students until close to his death at 82 in 1989.
For Olson and others, Jamison remains an enduring force in their lives and in the Sonoma-Marin agricultural community.

“Wes Jamison utilized the FFA to develop and nurture hundreds of students to positions of leadership including numerous state and national FFA officers, American Farmers, livestock judges and agriculture industry leaders,” said Olson, while remembering Jamison and other remarkable ag teachers who made their mark.

Throughout Sonoma and Marin counties, agriculture teachers, like Jamison, have been and continue to be central figures in shaping the lives of young people while developing the next generation of agriculture leaders. Many students recount how an ag teacher provided them a path during a crucial time in their young lives, encouraging them in a direction that would be both career and passion.

Indeed, many ag teachers became ag teachers because they were inspired by their ag teacher.

Since the 1920’s when vocational agriculture and the FFA program became part of the educational curriculum in high schools, ag teachers have been valued as essential partners in the agriculture industry. Across Sonoma County and at Tomales High School in Marin County, ag teachers are fixtures in the North Bay, visible at fairs and overseeing FFA members volunteering in the community, be it the Farm Bureau Crab Feed, Ag Days or Farm Trails’ Gravenstein Apple Fair.

Boys and girls in their blue jackets remind us of the thriving interest in agriculture among young people even as urban growth puts pressure on the farms and ranches that are part of Sonoma-Marin’s economy and way-of-life.

Today, there are nearly 2,000 students enrolled in agriculture programs at Sonoma County high schools including Cloverdale, Healdsburg, Petaluma, Santa Rosa, Elsie Allen, West Sonoma County, Sonoma Valley and Sonoma-Archbishop Hanna at the Hanna Boys Center in Sonoma. The Sonoma Region also includes the ag programs at Tomales High School in Marin County and St. Helena High School in Napa County.

During much of the 20th century, ag teachers were mostly men and it was primarily boys in the ag programs because FFA was not open to girls until the late 1960’s. Today most of the ag teachers are women and the ag students are predominantly girls, a seismic shift from the old days – and the old ways.

Today, at Santa Rosa High School where Jamison and other men taught for decades, there are three women – Lisa Piehl, Jessica Calestini and Kaitlyn McDonough – teaching classes, coaching teams and overseeing livestock and poultry projects for the fair. Most of the other high schools in Sonoma and Marin have all women ag teachers.

Of the 20 ag teachers in Sonoma County today, there are only two men, Jake Dunn of Petaluma High School and Michael Snowden of Sonoma Archbishop Hanna.

Jake Dunn, a 1994 graduate of Petaluma High School’s ag program, now teaches agricultural mechanics in the same shop where he learned welding, electrification and small engine repair. He was mentored and inspired by his ag teacher, the late Bill King, a beloved task master who taught students skills that would land them good paying jobs in the trades or prepare them for college.
Dunn, now in his 20th year of teaching and the former president of the California Agricultural Teachers Association and current president of the Sonoma Section Ag Teachers, said he became an ag instructor because of the influence of Bill King and Petaluma’s other ag teacher, the late John DeJong.

“The agriculture program at Petaluma High School was my second home. Mr. King and Mr. De Jong provided guidance for me and many of my friends,” said Dunn, who remembers that the graduation card King gave him had a note saying he should become an ag teacher. It planted the seed that would lead to Dunn’s teaching career and his involvement, like King, in professional organizations and the community.

“Mr. King could see in me the ability to do things I didn’t necessarily know I could do. That was the gift he gave to his students,” said Dunn, who earned a bachelor of science degree in agricultural systems management and his teaching credential at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. After teaching in the Central Valley, Dunn and his family returned to his roots in Petaluma to raise their children, Trevor, Wyatt and Addie.

Trevor Dunn is a freshman at Petaluma High School and enrolled in his father’s agriculture mechanics class as well as the ag biology class taught by Kim Arntz, the other ag teacher at Petaluma High.

Dunn not only shares his skills and wisdom with his students but young teachers as well. Lori Bisordi, a first-year agriculture teacher at Sonoma Valley High School, was a student teacher under Dunn and Arntz.

“It was an awesome experience to finish out my student teaching with experienced, dedicated teachers like Jake and Kim at Petaluma High. They showed me the ropes and together we navigated teaching in the classroom and shop. I was very grateful to have had the experience with them,” said Bisordi, who teaches ag mechanics and sustainable ag biology.

Bisordi is a fifth-generation member of a Fulton ranching family and a graduate of the ag program at Santa Rosa High School. She earned her ag degree and teaching credential from Chico State University and along with friend and fellow Chico grad Sarah Richardson is one of the two teachers in the ag department at Sonoma Valley High School.

Her passions for Sonoma County agriculture and the values of 4-H and FFA run deep. It’s a passion she wants to share with her students.

“I was fortunate to grow up in agriculture and because of that have been blessed to have a lot of doors open to me. I want to open doors for my students,” said Bisordi. As a member of the 4-H and then FFA she raised meat goats, lambs, pigs and steers and worked in her family’s vineyards, which gives her a broad background in agriculture.

She admits she has a lot to learn as she begins her teaching career but hopes one day she will be in the league with teachers like Dunn, Arntz and others who are making a difference in the way that Jamison and King did for previous generations of ag students.

Dunn said King’s legacy was teaching students the skills they could use for a successful career, even if they did not go to college. Many are now working in the trades, assisted in getting their first job through King and the network he created.

King, who died in 2014, retired in 2005 following a distinguished 39-year career. During his nearly four decades at Petaluma High, King coached 14 state champion agriculture mechanics teams and four state championship small engines teams. It’s a record held by no other teacher in the country.

Bill King is at the top of the list when ag leaders rattle off the names of stellar ag teachers in the North Bay. Another icon is Glenn Ament, the longtime instructor at Analy High School in Sebastopol. Ament, remembered as a great judge of man and beast, mentored many successful ranchers like Ernie Nunes, a well-known sheep breeder in Petaluma. Ted Rebello followed Ament at Analy, continuing the strong ag program that today is under the direction of Heidi Mickelson, Emily Dulany and Emma Pierson at West Sonoma County High, which is the name, for now, of the merged Analy and El Molino high schools.

Another legend, W.L “Pappy” Norton, the ag teacher at Petaluma High School from 1938 to 1955, was known for his strong skills in coaching public speaking award winners. He was fiercely proud that 72 percent of his graduates, many of them from Petaluma dairy families, went into farming as a career. An award in Norton’s memory at the Sonoma Marin Fair is one of the coveted honors sought by FFA members.

At Sonoma Valley High School, Earl Livingston was the revered ag teacher from 1947 until his retirement tin 1974, remembered for his dedication to his students. He was eventually followed by Mike Soukup who was the ag teacher at Sonoma High until he retired in 2010. During his time at the high school, Soukup developed an outstanding school farm adjacent to the campus, a place where students could raise livestock for the fair.

Rich Thomas, who would become the renowned viticulture instructor at Santa Rosa Junior College, started his ag education career at Healdsburg High School where he energized the school’s struggling ag department. His strong connections in the community lead him to update the curriculum to match the needs of the ag industry including a focus on viticulture as grapevines replaced cows and sheep.

Jim Porter, who taught animal science at SRJC for many years, was an ag teacher at SRHS where he coached championship livestock judging teams. The late Jim King is among the other notable ag teachers at Santa Rosa High School where he taught for decades and was chairman of the ag department following the retirement of Wes Jamison. During his tenure he coached national champion poultry judging teams and is credited with hiring many young ag teachers who energized and inspired students.

Annette O’Kelley, who grew up in Kenwood as a member of the Lawson family and was an outstanding member of the 4-H and FFA, became an ag teacher and taught at Santa Rosa High School for 13 years. When Elsie Allen High School was built, she transferred there to found the ag department where she inspired and mentored students for 21 years until her retirement.

The legacy of remarkable ag teachers like J. Wesley Jamison continues. When Jamison died, a memorial endowment was established to benefit the ag program and FFA members at Santa Rosa and Elsie Allen High Schools.

Olson, who still counts himself among “Uncle Wes’s Boys,” is chairman of the committee overseeing the Jamison Endowment, which now totals $268,000. Today, earnings from the endowment provide merit awards for FFA members to purchase market animals to raise and show at the Sonoma County Fair.

It’s a testament to the influence of ag teachers and their important role in a farming region like Sonoma-Marin.

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