Learning, Doing, Earning, and Serving
Colton Chambers seems ordinary enough. A soft-spoken 18-year-old in a buck print T-shirt and worn camouflage hat, he is sorting through photos of trapping trips and taxidermy mounts, wildlife and the prom, which he attended with his girlfriend, Hayley, the pretty, dark-haired girl sitting beside us in the workshed. Stylish as any city girl, she’s excitedly telling me about their competitiveness on fishing and hunting outings. Then we flip through clipping after clipping of newsprint, detailing Colton’s awards. Yet he is more interested in discussing a recent loon sighting, and how the outdoor activities he loves benefit wildlife management, than the competitions he has won.
I should have expected it really; FFA members are never ordinary. Nor is their understanding of conservation issues.
Being an FFA member requires dedication and ambition. The group’s motto is, “Learning to Do, Doing to Learn, Earning to Live, Living to Serve.” As such, expectations go beyond strong performance in the business of agriculture; the organization promotes excellence in scholarship, building interpersonal skills through teamwork and social activities, volunteerism, healthy lifestyles, and wise use of natural resources. The Department of Conservation takes pride in assisting the organization in the last.
“FFA is really important to conservation,” explained Veronica Feilner, the Department’s agriculture education coordinator. “In the long term, agriculture cannot be successful without conservation, and conservation cannot be successful without responsible agriculture. If we don’t conserve our resources and use them wisely, they won’t be available for either agriculture or wildlife.” The Department supports FFA’s efforts by developing programs and materials for teachers, assisting with annual FFA leadership camps, creating exhibits and displays for conference and career shows and by awarding the United Sportsmen League Wildlife Conservation Grant to FFA chapters. FFA supports conservation by promoting good land stewardship and respect for the resources we all depend on.
There are few partnerships more critical or mutually beneficial than the one between agriculture and conservation, and FFA not only merges these two interests, but benefits a third as well—education. “The additional resources and opportunities that FFA brings to schools helps students develop valuable study, life and professional skills,” explains Veronica, “as well as improving agricultural literacy in a society often removed from the sources of its food, fiber and natural resources.”
While conservation education is woven throughout the FFA curriculum, students may also choose to learn advanced career skills in a conservation or environment-related field. One of the proficiency areas offered is Wildlife Production and Management, Colton’s specialty.
Last October, at the 80th National FFA Convention in Indianapolis, Colton was named the national award winner of the Wildlife Production and Management—Entrepreneurship program. As a member of the North Andrews FFA Chapter, he started a successful trapping business that he continues to develop.
“Trapping is necessary to keep the population balanced,” says Colton, as he leads the way to an outbuilding that serves as his workshop. “If you do it right, trapping can lead to healthier animals repopulating the next year. And for nuisance animals, it’s one of the best ways to manage them.”
The inside of his workshop is a testament to Colton’s dedication to do it right. Well-maintained and ordered by size, hundreds of traps line the ceiling and walls. His materials are carefully organized, the workbenches clear of debris. The slightest hint of skunk scent hangs in the space, but there is no other evidence of the messy detail work he undertakes here. Refrigerators for skins share space with typical signs of teenage habitation—a television, a microwave, a road-style sign collection and the occasional poster of a pretty girl—but the room is as organized as an army barracks. This is obviously more business space than hangout.
When I inquire about a tidy assortment of animal skulls on a shelf, Colton explains that understanding animal biology and behavior is critical to his trapping success. “I never realized how much there was to learn before I started,” he says. “I read everything I can find, watch videos and go to trapping conventions.”
Though he grew up hunting and fishing, and still enjoys those activities, Colton is relatively new to trapping. His brother became interested a few years back and piqued his interest. Now the brothers and their father have taken up trapping, in addition to their other outdoor pursuits. He has also become interested in taxidermy, and his mounts can be found at every turn, both in the workshop and throughout his family’s home.
Colton turned his passion into a business, and then a national award, with the guidance of his agriculture teacher and FFA advisor, Edward Windsor. He traps both for skins to sell and to remove nuisance animals, averaging around 250 animals a year. The money he earns is re-invested in the business.
“It was quite a bit of work, but I didn’t mind,” says Colton about starting his business and, later, applying for the national proficiency award. “I don’t have as much interest in livestock. Wildlife management is really what got me involved.”
When asked what gave his project the edge in the competition, Colton says, “I think it was because I kept getting better; I gained more land, I made more money, I caught more animals. It just kept growing.” But he credits the preparation and resources his advisor gave him as the ultimate key to his success.
“Mr. Windsor set up all the paperwork and helped me figure it out,” says Colton. “He taught me how to write down goals, how to get equipment. He lets me trap on his land. He doesn’t take much credit for it, but he helped me out a lot. He really pushed me.” And when Colton got on stage at the National FFA Convention to give a speech on his project, he admits he was thankful for his advisor once again, though he winces in apparent embarrassment as he explains, “He made me write the speech, and two months before the convention he made me practice it every class in front of the other students so they could offer suggestions and ask questions.” Getting up in front of the approximately 55,000 attendees was still a little stressful, he allows, but at least he knew his speech was solid.
Colton plans to continue his business, and hopes to one day become a professional trapper, taxidermist and hunting guide. He hasn’t made a decision on college as yet, but he is sure that he will continue his involvement with FFA and wildlife management. Whatever his future pursuits, says Colton, his interest in the outdoors and conservation “is for life.”
FFA: A Good Foundation
The National FFA Organization is far more than an extracurricular activity. Founded in 1928, the organization holds a federal charter, and two of its top three executives are employed by the U.S. Department of Education. All public school students in grades 7 to 12 who are enrolled in agriculture courses can join FFA, which helps them apply classroom instruction to hands-on opportunities, such as starting their own business or working for an established company. Agriculture teachers become advisors to local FFA chapters and offer guidance on projects, competitions, and business and communication skills. As of 2007, there were 500,823 FFA members in 7,358 chapters in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Last year, the organization awarded $1.9 million in scholarships.
Brunswick FFA Chapter
Forest Management and Products Proficiency —State Award Winner
Ethan began working at Johnson’s Christmas Tree Farm in Triplett the summer prior to his eighth-grade year. At the farm, his duties included cutting, trimming, painting, drilling, shaking and netting trees. He also spent time driving tractors and mowing. But most importantly, says Ethan, working at the farm taught him a lot about the forest industry.
Ethan became interested in FFA because his brother had joined and recommended it. “He told me about all the opportunities available, so I checked it out. I felt like it suited me.” It apparently did, as he became his chapter’s vice-president.
While balancing schoolwork with FFA commitments can be challenging at times, Ethan says the skills he learns help him in the classroom as well. He has had to improve his math and science abilities to be competitive in the program. “But I like having to know this stuff,” says Ethan, “and that I need to participate and push myself.” He also enjoys the variety of activities and competitions that are available to him. Last year, he participated on his chapter’s Soils Team.
Over the summer, Ethan worked at the Land Learning Foundation in Triplett, an organization dedicated to maintaining habitat and outdoor sporting opportunities. Now in his junior year, he is looking forward to more challenges through FFA, and of his experience so far he says, “I’m having an awesome time.”
Slater FFA Chapter
Outdoor Recreation Proficiency—State Award Winner
Since the summer of 2005, Hannah has been working in outdoor recreation at Arrow Rock State Historic Site. Her duties have included coordinating nature and historical programs for children and adults, creating advertising materials and participating in demonstrations on subjects ranging from flint knapping to bugs and butterflies.
In addition to her work at Arrow Rock, Hannah was president of her FFA chapter, and has also served as area reporter and competed on meats judging, soils and farm management teams.
Although she grew up in a farming family, Hannah says, “I never realized how big a role agriculture played in everything until I joined FFA.”
Though she plans to major in psychology when she enters college this fall, Hannah says, “I wouldn’t take back being involved with FFA for anything. I’ve gained good learning and life skills, and that applies to just about everything. Also, the competitiveness of the program meant I really had to have my stuff together and be confident in my abilities. It was fun, too.” Hannah says FFA will still have a place in her future, regardless of her final career choice.
Asked if other students should consider FFA, even if they don’t plan to work in agriculture someday, Hannah says, “Absolutely. If any little part of them wants to do it, they should. It’s really worthwhile.”
Tipton FFA Chapter
Environmental Science and Natural Resources Management Proficiency —State Award Winner
Making compost isn’t too difficult, and she enjoys the work, but, “It is kind of dirty and dusty sometimes,” says Taylor, laughing. “I wish I could do something about that.”
Taylor’s ash and compost business, Ozark Gold, began with the help of her father and uncle who raised turkeys. They were looking for a way to turn turkey mortality back into profit. Taylor uses ingredients such as pencil shavings, old hay, wood chips and sawdust to increase the effectiveness of her compost, and continually looks for new ways to improve the quality of her product. She has recently started marketing the compost to local businesses and area farmers.
Taylor has a long view for the business, and though she is still in her senior year, she has already planned how she will manage when she leaves for college. “I can come home on the weekends, it’s really easy to keep going,” she says. And, after all, her product can stand to sit awhile.
Though she credits her family for the support they gave her in developing the business, Taylor says that FFA helped teach her good work ethics and confidence. “Our ag teacher always encouraged us to do our best,” says Taylor. “It made me want to do something with myself and try harder.” It also developed her understanding of conservation issues. “You’ve got to take care of the world around you. Agriculture and conservation goals are similar: Promote the well-being of your environment.”
Perryville FFA Chapter
Wildlife Management Entrepreneurship Proficiency—2nd Place National Award Winner
Because of his strong family farming background and his interest in wildlife, Andrew knew that planning for conservation was important. So he developed a conservation plan for himself that included establishing food plots for deer. In the course of his project, he learned about harvesting trees, palatability of plants, mineral and supplemental feeding techniques, and the best ways to manage food plots.
Andrew says he’s gotten a lot of support throughout the process, and he tries to reciprocate by helping others establish similar practices. “I’d like to start my own land management business someday,” he says, “but for now I just try to encourage others to manage their land and wildlife as I do.”
Juggling schoolwork and FFA, as well as participating in Conservation Youth Corps, Quail Academy and Conservation Honors, didn’t seem to faze Andrew. “It wasn’t stressful at all,” he insists. “FFA helped me branch out and learn to talk to people, and the awards and praise from the advisors let me know I was doing good work.” He adds, “You have to do everything you can to have the most fun and to get the most out of it.”
Now that he’s graduated, Andrew plans to attend college, majoring in either wildlife biology or forestry. He might even decide to work for the Conservation Department. “This is my main passion,” he says, “and what’s better than doing something you love with your life?”