Lessons, Life Skills and Agriculture through FFA
Last updated 4/9/2019 at 3:20pm
On a beautiful Friday afternoon, the Lake Wales High School Future Farmers of America was having a celebration to end FFA Appreciation Week. Students were playing cornhole, listening to some tunes spun by Cory Greenway of the Outta Hand Band, and eating some burgers and hot dogs donated by Weikert Ford. This day was the culmination of an entire week of celebration for FFA. Even though there was fun to be had the next hour was back to work for the students working hard to complete their ornamental horticultural demonstrations. This is the life of someone in agriculture. Celebrate and then get back to work.
During the festivities you could see the cooperation and joy the students shared with each other. Sitting down and interviewing a few of them showed the enthusiasm each had for the FFA even more. While speaking with Paige Turner, the FFA instructor at Lake Wales High School, at her desk during a class you can see her attention to the students. You can also see that there is a sense of discipline in the classroom as students meandered to the desk to ask questions regarding their assignment. While we were talking, Turner stated that being involved in the FFA allowed students to be in leadership roles, learn about various opportunities, learn about plant science, animal science, mechanics, and many other things revolving around agriculture. This sentiment was repeated by the students during their own interviews.
Most of the time, sitting down with today's teenagers is a bit like watching a dog covered in fleas. They are moving about and flittering to the next spot. However, the six students that were interviewed were attentive, responsive, and focused. Turner mentioned this in her own interview. She was very strong on the students gaining soft skills that could be used in whatever industry or career a student might choose. Looking someone in the eye, shaking hands, communicating in clear sentences, and having discipline during tasks were just some of the important items she stressed during classes.
As the interviews began, I really wanted to speak to some of the students who had competed at the Polk County Youth Fair or Florida State Fair and had garnered some success in their chosen fields. What they competed in didn't really matter, there are close to a gazillion things students can compete in, it was more about how the competition and the prep for the competition affected them.
The first person to step up to be interviewed was Bryce Gary. He is the president of the FFA at LWHS, is a junior and has been in FFA for five years. When asked why he started in FFA it was simply because he loved animals and wanted to be involved in agriculture.
During his 6th grade year he showed a hog. He described picking his hog out in August or September with them weighing about 40-70 pounds and getting started. He had to feed it twice a day, clean the pen twice a day, make sure there was always fresh water and do everything you can to get the hog to weigh between 240-295 pounds at weigh-in during the January show. He also mentioned that at Youth Fair you show the hog and the judges look at its appearance, how it is structured, how much muscle it has, what its fat content is, and how it moves. All of this is done in a 4 ½ to 5 ½ month time span.
Oh yeah, if you are picked by the judges you go back into the arena for showmanship. This is when you get judged on how well you show the animal. When asked what made a good hog he answered, "A lot is learned in class, but you also must do some of your own research." This was such a nice answer to hear. Many of the students echoed the same thought. Not everything is cut and dry; sometimes you must dig a little deeper.
Bryce also has shown a steer and a heifer. His steer started out weighing in at 640 pounds and at the show weighed 1,310 pounds. He did showmanship with his steer with only a lead rope and halter. Can you imagine maneuvering that much weight with only those tools? This requires an amazing amount of discipline and work. Bryce estimates that he spent between 20-30 hours a week working with his animals. His heifer is pregnant so next year he will show them as a cow/calf pair.
With all this work there has been success. With his hog he has won senior showmanship, he won the commercial division grand champion with his steer, reserve grand champion with his steer, and the senior showmanship division. At the State Fair this year his hog was reserve grand champion in his division and his heifer was second in showmanship. His love for FFA is evident in his aspirations. Since he was in 7th grade Bryce has wanted to be a state officer. Not only is he the LWHS FFA president, he is also a federation officer and is becoming a district officer as well. He wants to continue in agriculture after school by creating his own cattle business and giving back to the FFA.
Wow, when someone has passion it shows in their work product.
Khloie Maldonado also obliged and joined in the interviews. She joined five years ago, and the 10th grader stated she liked animals and thought it would be fun to be involved. I asked her why she stayed involved and she simply said, "My steer." Expanding on that she went on to say that the focus it took to prepare for the show was one of the best experiences she has had.
I asked her about her process and that is when the passion about this project came out. She stated that she hadn't always been responsible, and she was nervous about raising her steer. Having to be accountable to something else besides herself made her very nervous. It really was a lot more time than she thought it would be, but it was so rewarding. Her steer weighed 675 pounds when she got him and at the show he came in at 1,205 pounds. She had to calculated how much he would gain per day, and at one point he wasn't gaining enough so she had to do more research. There is that research word again.
These students didn't just give up, they persevered through to find the answers necessary to complete the task. She worked with her steer, Bubbles, 2 to 3 hours a day and kept him on campus to help her stay focused. Khloie even participated in a show before the Youth Fair and the judge told her Bubbles needed more muscle so she started walking him daily in the pasture to help build it up.
Her hard work paid off winning her class. Khloie also stated that the Youth Fair experience was amazing and she loved showing her steer. A lot of people might not know but these students must sell their market animals after the show. They are not pets, they are our food. This was very hard for Khloie, she cried for a long time but guess what, she is going to do it again next year. When asked about her long-term goals with the FFA, Khloie stated that she would like to use the skills and discipline she is gaining to go to the Navy but if that is not the route, she goes she would like to study agri-business or science.
Winning is always a bonus but learning from the experiences carries a lot of weight. Turner spoke about this when she sees a newer student who starts wanting to spend their extra time working on their craft. She also mentioned that when a student becomes proficient in their selected discipline that this is a culmination of mastering the given skill.
When I sat down with Keon Booker and Tyler Joyce, you could see the light flickering in their eyes. Both are in 9th grade and Keon has been in FFA for one year while Tyler is in his second year. Both joined because they wanted the experience of being an FFA member and to try out what it was like.
Keon and Tyler were adamant that they enjoyed the experience, there were so many things to try, and Tyler added that you got to get wild animals and train them. Each of them showed a hog at the Youth Fair so we spoke about that experience.
Keon chose the hog because it was the most economical way to be involved with learning how to work with the animals. For Tyler, the economics were the same but there was also a family tradition to continue. His entire family has been involved during their time at school.
Both Tyler and Keon stated that they didn't realize how many hours it would take but that they came before school, worked during school, and stayed after to work with their respective hogs. Keon's started out at 60 pounds while Tyler's started out at 72 pounds. Neither one of them found the success they wanted at the Youth Fair, both received red ribbons, and Keon made it a point to say he really wanted to work harder to earn a blue ribbon in showmanship.
Lessons learned are the best medicine at times. Each of them stated that they would like to do it again. Keon wants to introduce others to the FFA, and Tyler really wants to go into engineering. Both young men felt like FFA has taught them a lot about responsibility.
Success doesn't always happen but the attempt to be successful fills up our minds with lessons we will carry forward for years to come.
Both Tyler and Keon showed that, and Briley Wetherington was another good example. She is a 10th grader in her second year with FFA. Briley joined because her dad did it when he was in school. She would like to stay in FFA through high school and possibly be a large animal vet or in citrus production. Her story shows the ups and downs and the real-life consequences that FFA is able to bring to the classroom.
Briley also wanted to show a hog at the Youth Fair. The only problem was that it didn't make weight. This means that all the time and effort put in to the hog were for naught. You don't get to show it off and it costs you a lot of money with no way to recoup those costs at the sale. Her failure made her realize that she needed to ask more questions and reach out for more advice.
All was not lost though as Briley also has a heifer that she is working with and she won grand champion in her division. She is going to breed her and show her in the cow/calf division next year.
Since there are so many aspects to FFA Briley has decided to work on a few of them. She is very involved in her animals and has also been working with the vegetable judging team. Yes, this is a real thing that also requires a lot of work. Between the 20-30 hours a week with her animals she also spends about one day a week with her plant science. The team works on the identification of weeds, seeds, and vegetables. They also work on citrus and plants. The teams take tests to identify the varieties.
Being in FFA allows students to gain knowledge in multiple facets of the agricultural industry. Mrs. Turner stated that 8 of the 10 last graduates have gone to college for agriculture. A lot go into a more technical career.
When a student joins FFA there are many things they can gain success in through the years. There are leadership events, public speaking contests, parliamentary procedures, interview skills, ag education skills, extemporaneous speaking, prepared public speaking, and creed speaking. They can also compete in ornamental horticultural demonstrations, vet assisting, vegetable judging, livestock evaluations, horse judging, ag mechanics, forestry, horticultural, floricultural, nursery landscaping, and around 60 other competitions.
Like many students, Yoali Sanchez is trying multiple things. The 11th grader has been in FFA six years and she started because her cousin was in it and she saw that she had enjoyed it. The vet assisting program is what Yoali has chosen to focus on while in FFA.
This year she showed a steer and she said it was a great experience even though she was super nervous. Her steer started at 600 pounds and finished at 1,292 pounds. She asked a lot of people about the process of learning showmanship and she practiced it a lot.
When she first started out, she was spending about an hour and a half each day with her steer and that quickly became three hours a day. All her hard work earned her a second in class and she also earned the award for the most weight gained for her steer.
Yoali is also involved in ornamental horticultural demonstrations. She must come up with a plan for decorative plantings, crafts, and then explain the entire process and present it to the judges. Learning to build relationships, becoming a better communicator, and learning to be a better person are some of the things that FFA is helping Yoali with and she hopes to use those skills as she works toward becoming a doctor and opening her own ag business down the road.
Speaking with Turner you can tell she enjoys interacting with the students and seeing the growth throughout the year. She states that she will never apologize for being hard on them. She knows that one day they will be successful.
She also talked about there being no "I" in team and that you are only as strong as the weakest link. When you know the abilities of the team you always fight for the best. This statement led to the last interview with a student.
Adriana Kolodziejski is an 11th grader who has been in FFA for two years. She first joined by accident but has stayed in because of the great friends she has made, and it is also a way for her to be involved. She is involved in the vegetable judging team and that too, happened by accident. Adriana was taking a test, scored really well, so Mrs. Turner asked her if she ever thought about being on the vegetable judging team. She thought about it and said, "What the heck."
The team studies four days a week by looking at pictures, studying the plants, and learning each one. Adriana also stated that by being in FFA she has learned how to make good resumes and has improved her writing. One of her highlights about being in FFA, even though she never intended in joining, is that the vegetable judging team was the first one ever at LWHS to qualify for the state finals.
Each of the students interviewed had some similar reasons and their own personal desires for joining and for staying involved in the FFA. Turner knows the growth is coming and as the program succeeds and proves itself more students will want to be involved. She also stated that it is fun to sit and watch and listen to the kids when they are out and about because it makes her so proud to see what they have become and how they hold themselves up.
One of her biggest struggles growing the program is a common cry, "there are so many other outside activities it is hard to get students to be engaged to the point where they are going to be successful." This may be a problem, but it is apparent there is a good groundswell at LWHS and its FFA program.