You won’t see them on ESPN, but students in the Future Farmers of America program liken their work to that of an athletic squad.
“The longer players have been together, the better they work as a team,” said freshman Landon Vandehey. “They get more practice together, they get more out of it. Our team is like a sports team.”
Several of those team members went to a statewide FFA competition May 1 and 2, where students from the Hermiston program competed in five different categories: Dairy Foods, Agriculture Communications, Crops, Meats Evaluation and Food Science. The Dairy Foods and Agriculture Communications teams won first prize, and will be traveling to Indianapolis in October for a national competition.
The competitions are all part of FFA’s “Career Development Events,” or CDEs. The students compete in nearly 20 different events throughout the school year, some of which require preliminary or sectional contests to qualify. At Oregon State University’s CDE Days, Hermiston was well-represented. In addition to its two first-place teams, its Meats Evaluation team got second out of 23 teams, and the Food Science team got third out of 16.
“In FFA, we probably have 100 to 150 kids that do something ag-related every year,” Smith said. This can include competitions, showing at the fair, or teaching agricultural concepts in the schools to younger students.
The students can hone a variety of skills through FFA competitions.
“We get a lot of diversity in the kids that come through the door,” Smith said. “Ag (communication) is very academic — those kids have to do a lot of reading and writing. Dairy foods is more sensory evaluation.”
The different competitions also allow the students to see what a career in different aspects of the agriculture industry might look like.
“For dairy foods, we get to step into the business, and decide the production quality (of a dairy product),” said Vandehey, who was part of the winning team.
The students have to test and identify different cheeses, and be able to determine which one is made from real milk, and which is from soy or another ingredient. They also have to taste different milks to determine the quality. Based on what cattle have been eating, the flavor of the milk can be altered. The students grade the milk on a scale of 0 to 10, 0 being undrinkable and 10, without defects.
“That’s the hardest part of the whole competition,” said Wyatt Paschal, a senior and part of the dairy foods team.
Students have to determine whether there are defects in the milk, and grade it based on taste.
Additionally, the dairy foods students take a 50-question test about what’s going on in the dairy industry right now.
“It gives them insight into what the industry is,” said Alyssa Davies, an agriculture instructor at Hermiston High School. “Where it’s been, where it’s going.”
Smith added that a lot of the competitions replicate actual jobs and skills required in the industry.
“There is someone who identifies whether or not milk is good or bad,” she said. “It’s an industry skill they can learn.”
For the Agriculture Communications team, preparations include studying and honing their presentation, speaking and writing skills.
“We have to cram a lot into a short time,” said Lexy Myers, a junior on that team. “We have about a month to prep.”
At this month’s competition, the students attended a press conference, where they heard a presentation from a former FFA student. They took notes, and then went into their individual practical exams, which included writing a blog post about what they’d heard. Then, they prepared for the team exercise, giving a presentation of their own, about how a team member of their own promotes FFA in the state of Oregon.
“It’s all impromptu,” Smith said. “They don’t know what the presentation is going to be about beforehand.”
Other categories also involve more hands-on skills, such as the meats evaluation team.
“We have to know the cuts of pork, beef and lamb,” said Cody Wizner. “We look at four different cuts, and tell which is the best and why.”
The students also have to determine yield and quality for the different cuts, and get to do some of the same things a USDA meat inspector would do.
Many of the students say they are interested in pursuing a career in agriculture.
“Many times I get asked, why do you spend so much time in the ag room?” said Isel Tejada, a sophomore. “It’s really because you get skills you wouldn’t get just sitting in a classroom. It’s a hands-on opportunity.”
The students are done competing for the year, but the two nationals-bound teams will practice through the summer, and will go to Indianapolis in the fall.
Hermiston has had a strong FFA program for many years.
“The program is very seasoned,” Smith said. “We have good participation, good numbers. I don’t know if we’re rapidly growing, but we have a good following.”