Plato High School student Josh Wolfe works with a acetylene torch March 20 in the vocational technical building at Houston High School during FFA Area 13 competition.

The fact that the Future Farmers of America program is popular at Ozarks high schools is fairly well known. But it’s safe to say that much of what goes on in FFA isn’t nearly as well known.

For example, some people probably aren’t aware that FFA participants do a significant amount of something not usually associated with farming: they compete. But during what amounts to a season very much like high school sports seasons, FFA students pit their knowledge and skills against counterparts from far and wide at a number of organized competitions.

In Missouri, high schools are divided into 16 FFA “areas.” Houston High is a member of the 26-district Area 13, and for many years has been the host school for the area’s annual competition in March (the month when the competitive season is in high gear). This year’s version of the Area 13 meet took place March 20, and involved an amazingly complex logistical challenge for Houston FFA advisor Van Kirkwood and other event organizers.

The event resembled a virtual FFA Olympics, with competitions in many categories staged at several different venues in and around Texas County, featuring between 600 and 700 participants representing school districts from the Arkansas border to north of I-44 (most of which were Area 13 members, but a handful of others also took part). Most of the competition during the day-long event took place at the Houston Area Chamber of Commerce Fairgrounds, but competitors in some categories were bussed to businesses or farms in Cabool, Mountain View and parts of Texas County outside Houston.

“Most people have no idea about all the things we do,” Kirkwood said. “We’re sort of the unseen and the unheard.”

FFA is a year-round program, and while most competitions take place in spring, some do exist in the fall as well. Competitive events feature judging and grading in a wide range of categories, including soil, meat, and several farm animal species. Also included are skill competitions in several categories, like topographic map reading, tool identification, welding, to name a few.

Competitors must also be prepared to speak, as they are often required to stand before judging panels and explain their reasoning for the conclusions they’ve reached. In many cases, written exams are even factored into the end results.

“There’s a lot more to it than steers and pigs,” Kirkwood said. “And in FFA, we touch on just about every aspect of schooling and we involve teachers from almost every department. The sciences and math are all applied in the things we do and as ag teachers, we probably teach more different subject area than any other program.”

Staging the big area competition each year requires the coordinated effort of a lot of people from many different agencies, institutions and organizations, as well as volunteer offerings of numerous area residents:

•All of the off-site locations used for competition were available by donation of their owners.

•Animals used in judging are voluntarily provided by Texas County farmers and producers.

•The Texas County Fair Board and the Houston Area Chamber of Commerce are both instrumental in making the event possible.

•Representatives of the Missouri Department of Conservation and University of Missouri Extension lend a hand in some categories.

•Agricultural sciences teachers from various schools lend their expertise, and even University of Missouri graduate students provide technological help and other assistance.

“There’s so much that goes into this, it takes a lot of dedicated people to make it happen,” Kirkwood said. “The ones who come here just give up their day and help us out.”

The Houston team’s results at the area competition included four individual top-10 finishes: junior Rachael Ice took fourth and freshman Chelsea Shelton placed 10th out of 70 competitors from 16 schools in the dairy cattle category, while junior Tanner Scheets finished ninth in livestock among 96 competitors from 20 schools, and senior Logan Taylor (who earlier in the year earned the title of FFA Area Star Farmer) placed ninth in meats out of 53 students from 14 schools.

Houston’s team results included three top-10 finishes: third in meats, fourth in dairy cattle, and seventh in livestock.

Kirkwood (who teaches the agricultural program at welding, livestock and more at HHS) said FFA competition is far from entirely about winning and losing. It’s about learning and improving.

“We definitely help each other out,” Kirkwood said. “It’s not just an I’m-going-to-beat-you type of thing, if someone needs help, we’ll sit down and help each other.”

Many members of Houston’s FFA team, which consists of about 30 total students, traveled last Thursday to Crowder College in Neosho for a huge invitational competition featuring more than 2,100 students representing 80 schools. Ice again finished high in the dairy cattle category, placing 13th out of 181 competitors.

A week before the big meet in Houston, Area 13 members met in Willow Springs for a competition that included public speaking, FFA knowledge and parliamentary procedure, and other categories outside the nuts-and-bolts aspects of farming.

“It’s more of an FFA leadership type of contest,” Kirkwood said.

On Monday of this week, Summersville hosted a competition featuring still more categories, including agronomy, horticulture, nursery, ag sales, farm management and more.

While students scrutinizing cuts of steak, layers of dirt in a pit, or pens full of goats may not soon be depicted on a popular sports channel, the reality is those scenarios are all part of the populous, complex world of FFA competition.

“Most people really don’t understand the degree of competition we have in FFA and all of the options and choices the kids have,” Kirkwood said. “And all the areas an ag teacher is trying to train in.”

Houston FFA’s competitive season culminates with the district contest March 30 in Rolla, followed by the state meet April 19 and 20 in Columbia.

Missouri FFA Area 13 competition

Houston team top-10s

•Meats – 3rd

•Dairy Cattle – 4th

•Livestock – 7th (20 schools/96 students)

•Forestry – 9th

•Horses – 9th

•Dairy Foods – 13th

Houston individual top-10s

•Dairy cattle – Rachael Ice 4th; Chelsea Shelton 10th

•Livestock – Tanner Scheets 9th

•Meats – Logan Taylor 9th

Other competitions

•Ag mechanics (8 schools/36 students)

•Horses (16 schools/64 students)

•Poultry (13 schools/56 students)

•Soils (7 schools/38 students)

*28 total schools represented

Houston results at Crowder College competition

•Dairy Cattle – 12th out of 48 schools

(Racheal Ice – 13th/181 students)

•FFA Knowledge – 15th out of 32

•Meats – 17th out of 42

•Forestry – 20th out of 30

•Dairy Foods – 30th out of 42

•Horses – 31st out of 54

•Livestock – 39th out of 54

•Entomology – 28th out of 32

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