Rick Taggesell always has been interested in gardening, but when he looked up a book online, he was surprised to see an unexpected picture on the cover: a fish.

The Sonoma Valley High School sophomore had stumbled on a guide to aquaponics, the emerging practice of raising fish and food crops in a tightly interconnected loop. Fish provide fertilizer for the plants; the plants filter the water for the fish.

Through the agriculture program at the high school and the FFA club, Taggesell has made a working model of the process and holds out the possibility of pursuing this form of agriculture as a career.

"I don't know how many jobs there are in it at the moment," the 16-year-old said, "but it's going to become more important" as the climate changes and water-starved regions such as North Africa look for sustainable ways to feed their people.

Taggesell is among hundreds of Sonoma County students in ag-related classes and clubs who could benefit from a new commemorative license plate hitting the streets this month, honoring California's agriculture industry. The extra fees associated with the plates will raise money to fund agricultural education statewide.

Agriculture teachers at the county's high schools say their programs are thriving despite the increasing urbanization of the region. At Sonoma Valley alone, the FFA club has swelled by 100 in recent years, to nearly 400, teacher Felicia Rush said.

The nature of the programs, however, has changed dramatically. High schools statewide have partially shifted away from traditional vocational education toward an academically rigorous college prep program, Rush said, focusing more and more on agricultural technology, business, and even emerging new fields like aquaponics.

"Students are starting to see different kinds of agriculture and they're getting interested," Rush said.

There are about 300 high school agriculture programs statewide, enrolling roughly 73,000 students in at least one class per year, said Bob Heuvel, program manager for agriculture and home economics education for the state Department of Education. All of those students are automatically enrolled in FFA, formerly known as "Future Farmers of America."

The curriculum has evolved over the years to include leadership and personal development, he said, and is increasingly being used to give students hands-on exposure to science, math and other core disciplines.

"We're very lucky to have an agriculture industry around to go with it, as a vehicle to teach them those concepts," he said. "I wish more people would take advantage of it."

The new plate, the state's first new specialty plate in more than a decade, features a small farm-themed logo in the left corner, showing the sun rising over the neat rows of a planted field. The plate includes the word "Agriculture" in bright red and a smaller slogan in yellow: "Food, Fiber, Fuel, Flora."

The plate will cost motorists an additional $50 upfront and $40 per year to renew for regular plates. For plates with personalized lettering, it will be an extra $98 up front and $75 per year to renew. A portion of that fee may be tax deductible as a charitable donation, according to the DMV.

Educators and farming groups came up with the idea as a way to insulate education programs from possible budget cuts as the state grappled with deficits year after year, Santa Rosa High School teacher Lisa Piehl said.

Despite being in the midst of a densely developed city, Santa Rosa High School has about 400 students enrolled in at least one agriculture class, which can range from veterinary science to traditional crop and livestock raising. Were the funding for these classes to dry up, these students would have little contact with the natural world, she said.

"We have very few kids who come to us having property or having livestock at home," she said. "Probably 90 percent are students who otherwise wouldn't have an opportunity to get involved in traditional agriculture."

While the agriculture community was enthusiastic about the license plate program, the state wanted proof it would work before agreeing to manufacture the plates. The Department of Motor Vehicles required that at least 7,500 motorists agree to buy the plate before it would go into production.

After more than a year of effort by agriculture groups, teachers, and students, who lobbied friends and family to buy in, 8,300 vehicle owners paid the fee. The DMV says it will be mailing out the first of the plates this month.

The state will keep a small portion of the up-front fees, DMV spokesman Jessica Gonzalez said, because the DMV incurs some extra costs for producing the plates. For regular plates, the DMV will keep $18.05, or about 36 percent, of the up-front fee to cover costs; for personalized plates, the DMV will keep $23.65, or about 24 percent. The remainder will go to the Department of Food and Agriculture to distribute to education-related projects.

All of the annual renewal fees will go to the education fund, she said, since there is no additional cost to the DMV.

The DMV did not have an exact figure of how much has been raised.

For the moment, motorists wishing to order the plate have to mail in a paper form, Gonzalez said, but the state hopes to add the plate to online ordering options by the end of this month or perhaps in April. The paper form is available for downloading online, at www.dmv.ca.gov/forms/reg/reg17.pdf.

Exactly how the money will be distributed is not determined, said Steve Lyle, spokesman for the state Department of Food and Agriculture. The Legislature has yet to authorize the department to spend the money. Once legislators do so, he said, the department most likely will set up a competitive grant for 4-H, FFA and other ag education organizations to request funding.

Sonoma County Farm Bureau Executive Director Lex McCorvey said the new plate will be a great reminder to increasingly urbanized residents that agriculture remains a pillar of the county economy.

The county's ag education programs and clubs have produced many ag workers "who didn't grow up on a farm or a ranch in Sonoma County but have a love of the land," McCorvey said. "They're given an opportunity to connect whether they're from a farm or not."

You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313or sean.scully@pressdemocrat.com.