FFA STUDENTS MAKE IT TO TOP.
Byline: Matt Cooper The Register-Guard
JUNCTION CITY - Looking for a little good news in the newspaper? Try this: School district puts farm program on the chopping block. Community rallies to save program. Program takes first in a national competition.
The Junction City FFA made it happen in Louisville, Ky., last week when they beat 34 teams in a two-day competition that forced them to quick-think their way through vexing environmental and natural resource challenges.
It was the National FFA Environmental/Natural Resources Career Development Event, a competition that uses judging and scoring. Junction City High School teacher Reynold Gardner's FFA students are no strangers at the event - they've finished in the top five three times since 1999, including two second-place finishes.
Still, the first-place finish was that much sweeter, in part because the district mulled cutting the agriculture-based program in the spring of 2002.
"It was discouraging that the program was (up for elimination)," said team member Emily Wintch, 17. "I don't think people realize we are successful and we do make nationals. It's not just a bunch of farmers."
The FFA - formerly the Future Farmers of America - which has recast an image once specific to farming, prepares more than 460,000 students across the country for leadership and careers in the science, business and technology of agriculture.
Wintch and her teammates - Chauncey Freeman, Collin Kayser and Ryan Burks, all four of them seniors - reflect the kind of generational shift to which the FFA is trying to adapt.
All four have generally rural backgrounds, but none of them plan to become farmers: Wintch wants to be a veterinarian for exotic animals; Freeman plans to study business and plant sciences in college; Kayser will study science; and Burks, health care. The four won scholarships at last week's event.
The students competed individually and as a team to solve problems posed from the heady categories of soil profiles, water and air quality, environmental analysis and ecological succession.
Especially taxing was the team event: Given a scenario - an ammonia spill from a tanker truck - the team had to design an environmental response, complete with press releases, visual aids and health effects, and do it all in one hour.
Even as the final minute trickled down, Kayser said, the group worked coolly to its conclusion, nailing the make-or-break event.
The pride in Junction City's FFA program is evidenced by more than just the purple FFA jackets that the foursome sported Wednesday, or the countless award banners that threaten to overtake the walls of Gardner's classroom.
About 75 students participate each year, making it one of the school's most popular programs. And they're passionate: FFA students took to the streets in May of last year to protest district plans to cut the program.
They had the community on their side, Gardner said.
Supporters Buzz Gibson and Tom Hunton led an effort that raised $43,000 for the program, convincing the district of its value.
"The $43,000 to save the program made the administration do an about-face," Gardner said. "The program was no longer expendable."
Superintendent Don Anderson said then that it was worth it to continue extracurricular offerings such as the FFA, even if only for the short term.
In light of the national award, the district could face a tough battle - communitywide - if it looks at cutting into the program again.
About a half-dozen signs along the main drag of this 4,700-strong town congratulated the students for their first-place finish.
"It's a farm town, so everybody supports the farm program," said Corky Wilde, 53, a manager at Wilde's Tire Factory and an FFA student long ago.
"It not only teaches them farming and all that, but it makes better citizens out of them, too," he said.
Businesses in downtown Junction City use their reader boards to honor the FFA students' accomplishment.