WATSONVILLE—Juan Herrera has been keeping busy since he graduated from Watsonville High School (WHS) in 2021.
After landing a job with K&D Landscaping while still in school, Herrera rose up through the ranks, starting in the maintenance crew and finally working on larger residential and commercial projects. It was during his time at K&D that he discovered his love of construction management, which he is now pursuing through an internship with Granite Construction.
All of this was possible, he says, due to his time with the Watsonville Future Farmers of America (FFA) program.
“When I was a Freshman, I thought Future Farmers of America … I thought that all they do is farm, raise pigs and goats to enter in the fair,” Herrera said. “But then I got into it and saw there’s a lot more. There’s a big leadership side to it, competitions you can get involved in, and a lot of amazing opportunities.”
Herrera is currently preparing to compete at the National FFA Organization’s convention in October after becoming a finalist in Landscape Management proficiency. Being a finalist means he made the top four in the country. He is only the second in Watsonville’s history to compete for a national title.
“We’re very excited to see him compete,” said teacher and FFA advisor Jessica Sweet. “He was the first state winner of a proficiency at Watsonville High since our FFA chapter was formed in 1929. To watch him come full circle is amazing.”
Herrera’s job at K&D began as part of his FFA Supervised Agricultural Experience Project (SAE). These work-based projects aim to give students work experience outside of the classroom. They require that students complete 50 hours each year, which counts as part of their grade.
Students end up doing SAE projects about growing plants (usually strawberries), creating their own businesses or, in Herrera’s case, working for a local company.
“It’s a cool case where he worked at K&D as part of his school project, and that turned out to be what he wanted to do as a career,” Sweet said. “It doesn’t always happen like that, but it’s always pretty cool when it does.”
FFA students are allowed to maintain their membership and participate in competitions a year out of high school. Herrera first competed in Turf Grass Management proficiency at the state level in 2020 before taking on Landscape Management this year. He will go through an interview process in September before attending the convention, where the organization will announce the winner.
“It’s pretty exciting,” Herrera said. “It’s been a journey. Now my goal is to go far at Nationals and set a high standard for the kids who are still in high school FFA. I’ve always said, ‘I don’t do this for me.’ I want to put Watsonville out there and … put FFA out there, too.”
Herrera thanked Sweet and teaching partner Savanah Rhine for their guidance and encouragement during his time at WHS.
“They both really pushed me to do this project, and to compete,” he said. “They’ve given me so many opportunities and chances to grow. It’s been a cool ride.”
Herrera also thanked his mother, who he called his “biggest supporter,” and Shane White, who gave him the job at K&D. He also highlighted the crew at Granite Construction.
“I’m the youngest person [at Granite Construction],” he said. “I’m working with a great group of people who are teaching me a lot. Giving me the opportunity to learn. Not a lot of companies would be willing to take somebody under their wing who is so young and inexperienced. I’m trying to make the best out of it and learn the most I can, have fun while I’m doing what I love.”
Sweet praised Herrera for his hard work and positive attitude, and wished him luck at Nationals.
“We’ve been building up a really good FFA program here lately, and Juan has been integral in that,” she said. “He definitely deserves this.”
To learn more about Watsonville FFA and for competition updates, follow the chapter on Facebook and Instagram.