Members, supporters awarded top honors at record-breaking event
From impressive participation to highest honors, Missouri FFA members and supporters took center stage at the 96th annual National FFA Convention and Expo, held Nov. 1-4 in Indianapolis. In total, a record number of nearly 73,000 members, advisors and guests were in attendance at the 2023 event.
Among Missourians recognized during the convention was MFA Incorporated CEO Ernie Verslues, who was presented with an Honorary American FFA Degree. Missouri Department of Agriculture Director Chris Chinn was also among the 213 individuals who received the highly regarded award this year along with eight others from the Show-Me State.
“To me, the most gratifying recognition is always when it is least expected. This has to top the list,” Verslues said. “I want to give a shout-out to the Missouri FFA delegation for the enthusiastic applause when I walked across the stage in Indianapolis. It was a special touch to a humbling award.”
Members of the National FFA Organization’s board of directors approve the nominations for the honorary degree, given to those who show extraordinary support and personal commitment to agricultural education and FFA.
“Providing further educational opportunities for today’s youth is something I believe in strongly. The agriculture industry has given me so much. This is my effort to give back,” Verslues added. “No other organization develops tomorrow’s leaders like FFA.”
Among those leaders is Missouri FFA member Grant Norfleet of Mexico, who was elected National FFA Secretary during the convention. He and five other FFA members were chosen from 35 candidates vying for the coveted position on the national officer team.
The process to become a national officer is arduous, with the candidates taking part in an extensive interview process with the National FFA Officer Nominating Committee leading up to the election. National officers commit to a year of service, during which they will interact with business and industry leaders, FFA members and leaders, corporate sponsors, government and education officials and the general public. The team will help set policies that will guide the future of FFA and the next generation of leaders.
Norfleet, who grew up on his family’s farm in Audrain County, has been active with Missouri FFA since he was in high school, serving as a state vice president during his freshman year and as the Missouri FFA Camp leadership director this past summer. He is currently a student at the University of Missouri in Columbia, studying agricultural education and leadership with a communications emphasis and minors in agribusiness and digital storytelling.
Another Missourian, George Frees of the Cass Career Center FFA chapter in Harrisonville, earned the prestigious “American Star in Agriscience” award at the convention. He was among 16 American Star Award finalists from throughout the U.S. who were nominated and interviewed by a panel of judges. Four were named winners and received cash awards. American Star Awards are presented to FFA members who demonstrate outstanding skills and competencies through the completion of a supervised agricultural experience (SAE).
Frees found inspiration for his award-winning SAE project during a trip to a marine biology camp in Jamaica, where he learned about sugarcane cultivation from local growers. Back home, he decided to explore whether this typically tropical crop could be produced for ethanol in the Midwest. Specifically, he studied the effectiveness of treating sugarcane with gibberellic acid—a growth hormone applied to citrus fruits to promote cold tolerance—to increase the amount of ethanol biofuel that can be produced from the plant.
“Sugarcane is simply not a largely popularized crop in the United States because there’s a somewhat limited growing zone,” Frees said. “But from the standpoint of ethanol production, sugarcane is far superior in labor intensity and cost (compared to corn).”
Frees’ passion for crop science has continued into his college career at the University of Missouri, where he’s double-majoring in biochemistry and plant sciences and serves as the campus beekeeper. He plans to work in a field called “ethnobotany,” which looks at how native populations around the world use medicinal plants.
Other top winners from Missouri at the National FFA Convention included Nash McKenzie of Boonville FFA, who captured a national agricultural proficiency championship in Diversified Horticulture–Entrepreneurship/Placement. Agricultural proficiency awards honor FFA members who, through their SAE projects, develop specialized skills they can apply toward future careers. McKenzie built his own business, Home Exterior Services, in 2019, providing services that range from mulching and pulling weeds to yard design and installation.
Missouri had seven other national finalists in agricultural proficiency this year: Aiden Matthew Plenge, Clark County, Fiber and/or Oil Crop Proficiency; Kendra Zeilstra, Brunswick, Fruit Production; Baylor Russel Montgomery, Brookfield, Veterinary Science; Dane Christy, Atlanta, Poultry Production; Kaleb Peak, Wellsville-Middletown, Swine Placement; Carlee Long, Paris, Ag Sales—Entrepreneurship; and Ashley Sjostrand, Ashland, Diversified Livestock.
Ellie Samek of Bolivar FFA and Maddie Blankenship of Tuscumbia FFA were finalists in the National FFA Agriscience Fair, while Marshall FFA members Gentrie and Gage Davis took first place in the 2023 #SpeakAg Showcase, a new competition that encouraged participants to create digital promotions for their state’s agricultural industry. The Davis siblings spotlighted Missouri by creating a 2.5-minute video that featured interviews with area farmers along with footage and facts about the Show-Me State’s No. 1 industry.
This year’s Leadership Development Event Gold Emblem finalists from Missouri were California, Conduct of Chapter Meetings; North Shelby, second place in Parliamentary Procedure; and Wyatt Hendley of Bloomfield, third place in Extemporaneous Speaking.
In Career Development Event contests, Missouri’s Gold Emblem Finalists were North Shelby, third place in Agronomy; Neosho, fourth place in Poultry; Troy, fourth place in Ag Mechanics; Aurora, fourth place in Environmental and Natural Resources; Columbia, fifth place in Ag Sales; Skyline, fifth place in Nursery/Landscape; Elsberry, Floriculture; Palmyra, Food Science; Columbia, Meats Evaluation; and Fair Play, Milk Quality and Products.
The Aurora and Troy FFA chapters were also named Model of Excellence finalists based on innovative educational activities that emphasize growing leaders, building communities and strengthening agriculture. Only 10 high school chapters nationwide are recognized each year as earning the Model of Excellence designation.
Three Missouri chapters received the 2023 National Premier Chapter Award. This award is given to 10 chapters that go above and beyond in each of three areas: growing leaders, building communities and strengthening agriculture. Ashland FFA and Audrain Co. R-VI FFA were recognized in the “growing leaders” category, while Slater FFA was one of 10 honored for “strengthening agriculture.”
These three chapters also earned a 3-star rating—the highest rating they can receive—along with 22 other Missouri chapters.
During the convention, Missouri was recognized as having the highest number of American FFA Degrees by state, with 608 recipients earning the organization’s top individual honor. Less than one-half of 1% of FFA members earn this distinction.
Find more details on awards and the convention online at www.ffa.org/96th-convention-event-results.
Read the related editorial from Today's Farmer editor Allison Jenkin's about her first trip to an FFA convention.
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