Mother Nature forced the Southeast District FFA to postpone a competition they were hosting last week due to icy conditions. The FFA District Welding competition in Coffeyville was rescheduled for Wednesday January 27, the same day as the FBLA District Competition in Fredonia. That meant it was a busy day for Southeast sophomore Eric Underwood, who planned to participate in both competitions.
It’s an early start. At 6:30 a.m. Southeast FFA advisor Scott Sutton leaves Southeast High School with seven students. Ninety minutes later they are at the Coffeyville Community College Technical Center. Eric and his fellow competitors are in a classroom taking a written test over welding. Questions are about basic welding, as well as materials and costs.
Eric hands in the written portion of competition and heads out to the main area of the old armory where the college teaches welding. It’s dark and chilly, so Eric is wearing work boots, thick canvas pants, and a grey Southeast Lancer hoodie. He puts on gloves and a welding mask and with a pop and a flash of the torch, Eric starts working on two projects for the judges to show his welding skills. The competitors have to show that they can cut, as well as weld objects together in various ways.
“The more you learn the more you can do stuff yourself and you can save money by not taking it somewhere else,” Eric explains.
FFA breaks up its District Competitions over several dates at different locations. Throughout the school year, the Southeast FFA students have joined more than 20 other schools in the Southeast District at different competitions. Southeast freshman Daria Stricklin previously qualified for State by being the district winner in Creed Speaking. Southeast’s freshmen Parliamentary Procedure team also qualified for state. That team consists of Isabella Friemel, Julie Martin, Megan Colvin, Trenton Hartman, Gracee Pritchett and Jaret Brumback. Teams conduct a mock chapter meeting using the parliamentary procedures they are taught in the classroom, which are based on Robert’s Rules of Order.
Southeast’s Chapter team took 5th place in Parliamentary Procedure, not enough to qualify for state. But that wasn’t a total surprise since they were competing against teams made up mostly of seniors. Southeast’s Chapter Parliamentary Procedure team has one senior – Melanie Hartman, one junior – Jacob Wyckoff, and four sophomores – Daisy Burns, Hannah Williams, Laura Ridings and Eric Underwood.
Eric is also a member of the district winning Ag Management team, which will also be going to State. Southeast’s Ag Management team consists of Jacob McGuire and John Jameson, and Eric.
Eric is a busy student. In addition to FBLA, he is a member of the new Southeast SkillsUSA chapter and Student Council, having been elected the President of the Sophomore Class. He is the son of Van and Tara Underwood, who run Cedar Hills Farms, and his brother, Phillip, is a freshman at Kansas State studying Agriculture Technology Management. Eric has been a member of 4-H for several years and is an officer for the Southeast FFA chapter.
“Initially, why I joined FFA is because my brother was in it and my Dad wanted me to,” Eric says. “But after a couple of competitions and being a Greenhand officer I really got interested in it and it was a lot of fun.”
While Eric is a “farm kid” that’s not true for every member of the Southeast FFA chapter, whose appeal reaches beyond “cows, sows and plows”.
“When our students become adults and consumers, we want them to be aware where their food is coming from,” says Southeast FFA advisor Scott Sutton. “Recently there has been a push for organic, all-natural and antibiotic free products, and I think some food companies market a lot on people’s ignorance. If we can give these kids basic knowledge about what’s out there that makes them a more educated consumer and helps them make more informed decisions when purchasing food and deciding where to buy from. Most of these kids are not going to produce food. It takes so much capitol to start a farm you are either born into it or you have a lot of money. The vast majority of these kids are not going to do anything related to agriculture production, whether it’s crops or livestock. But it’s important to have them educated and informed on everything that goes into producing food. With them having at least a good grasp on where our food comes they can make educated decisions when feeding their families down the road.”
FFA takes these lessons beyond the classroom.
“There seems to be something for everybody,” Mr. Sutton says. “There are so many niches – leadership, hands-on, farm and ranch, flowers and plants if you’re into that kind of stuff. It’s not just for farm kids.”
Mr. Sutton says Southeast reaches out to students early on, with a nine week session where he teaches every eighth grader about FFA, animal science, plant science and agriculture management. Students who are more hands-on learn that they can do welding and shop-type contests in the FFA, it’s not just classwork. There is livestock judging for students who are growing up on a ranch, and Ag Management and agronomy for those growing up on a farm. There are also leadership competitions, which appeal to a lot of the students who are not “Ag kids”.
“(Sophomore) Sarah Clausen is an example of a non-Ag student who has experienced success in her first year of FFA,” Mr. Sutton says. “After not joining FFA as a freshman, she has medaled (placed top 10) in both Nursery Landscape and Leadership competitions, and is looking forward to Vet Science and Floriculture later this spring.”
By 10 a.m. Eric is done welding. He takes off the visor and gloves, and is off for Fredonia as Mr. Sutton wishes him good luck.
At 11 a.m., still smelling of burnt metal, Eric walks through the entrance at Fredonia High School. Surrounded by students from around 20 other schools, and greeted by 34 fellow Lancers, he quickly finds a place to change clothes.
Unlike the FFA, FBLA has all of its competitions on one day in one building. There are 57 categories to compete in and only the top three in each category move on to State. Most competitions have 10 to 15 competitors, but because a few events only have a couple of competitors the Southeast FBLA chapter added their own bylaw: you must beat somebody to qualify for State. If there are only two or three competitors in a category, you do not automatically get in – you cannot be “last”. The written tests frequently have as many as 30 competitors, making it much more difficult to qualify for State.
“I’m not going to let them go just because there were only two competitors,” says Southeast FBLA chapter sponsor Cherie Witt. “I tell them they have to beat somebody. If they cannot beat them at District’s they are not going to be able to compete at State. I could take all of these kids to State if I wanted to, but I want them to earn it. It’s a reward to be able to attend the State Leadership Conference.”
Mrs. Witt says that some schools focus on the written tests and only have a couple students who do presentations; but most Southeast students either do a presentation or submit a project beforehand to be judged, in addition to the test. It gets them out of their comfort zone.
“Some kids you tell them to do a presentation and they freak out,” Mrs. Witt says. “That gives them a better opportunity to qualify for state.”
Mrs. Witt explains that competitors who are presenting are scheduled time slots throughout the day. Those are taking written tests have a window of just over three hours to take those tests, giving them a little more flexibility. That window started at 9:40 a.m. and ends at 1 p.m.
“They go in for however long they think it’ll take them to do 50 questions within that amount of time – they just have to get it done,” Mrs. Witt said. “So, Eric has two hours to get two tests in because he’s doing AgriBusiness and Introduction to Parliamentary Procedures.”
“Both of those are very FFA heavy and that’s kind of why I asked him to join because, I’m like ‘you’ve got this background, you’re already in my class, why not use it? I’m not going to take you away from FFA – you’re already excelling in that.’”
“I didn’t want to miss out on the FBLA competitions, because if I miss this then that’s it for FBLA competitions for me,” Eric says. “This is how I would qualify for State, so I wanted a chance.”
Now in a royal blue dress shirt and black slacks, Eric is off to take both tests.
“We have several kids who do that actually,” Mrs. Witt said. “Zoey Ball and Melanie Hartman are both doing their sales presentations that they did for FFA, and they’ve just adapted them to a business setting. I think in FFA they had to actually interact with a customer, here they’re just pitching to a customer. So they have to be very ‘sales pitchy’”.
Mrs. Witt says the district competitions are good for the students, but it’s a whole other level at State, and then Nationals.
“It’s so nice to be humbled,” she laughs. “I want them to qualify for State and I want them to do well, but I also don’t want them to just think they’re going to get a free ride. They must beat somebody.”
It’s just after 12 p.m., and Mr. Sutton sends out a Tweet with results from the Welding Competition: Eric Underwood places 6th and sophomore Brody Wood places 10th. Because there are so many entries to go through from a single day of competition, Southeast FBLA likely won’t know how they did for a few days.
“This is what they work all year for – this is their one opportunity to apply everything that they have actually learned, whether it be presenting or written tests,” Mrs. Witt says. “This gives them the opportunity to be around other kids that are interested in the same stuff that they are. They can see someone else going through the same process of giving a speech and they freak out, and we freak out, and everybody freaks out and that’s normal.
“Our students think just our school is the one that’s panicked, but then they see that other schools are panicked,” continues Mrs. Witt. “They see a kid talking to a wall to practice, and think ‘I can do that’ (for practice). They learn from other kids while they are here. Competition is what’s going to make you better. You want to be pushed. You don’t want to have to beat one – you want to beat them all.”