When most people look at a horse, they see beauty and grace, the face of the American West, a symbol of wildness and adventure.
It’s a little different when Parker Cameron, Livia Jackola, Averie Olson, and Sarah Peterson look at equine creatures.
“The back end on Number 3 is a little smaller than his shoulders,” Peterson said, pointing to a screen showing four horses standing in profile.
What followed was a litany of reasons why one horse’s muscling was preferable to another’s, or the ideal thickness of the front leg bones holding up those massive frames. It was a quick master class in horse judging from the Future Farmers of America (FFA) students, who performed so well at the National FFA Convention in Indianapolis earlier this month that they ranked eighth in the nation.
This is no small feat. Across the country, there are 7,859 FFA chapters boasting almost 650,000 members. Only one chapter may represent each state, making the national convention a gathering of the best of the best.
And the Kalispell FFA group, comprised of high school students from both Flathead and Glacier high schools, came out near the top in each event.
In the meats evaluation category, the students must learn to identify more than 100 cuts of beef, pork, and lamb, and then be able to evaluate the cut based on the amount of marbling in it and what it should ideally look like. They also have to take stock of a carcass, estimate the animal’s age, how much meat it could yield in comparison to weight in bones and organs, and more.
As a team, the Kalispell group took home a silver emblem, ranking 20th in the nation. Individual standouts include Krystal Sutton, who earned gold and took 12th overall and won $400, and Tia Evenson and Whitney Levanen, who took silver.
In farm business management, the participants are given three hours to go through dozens of pages of financial records of an actual farm somewhere in America, and then come up with a plan to most efficiently run that farm.
The team earned a silver emblem and ended up 18th in the nation. Noelle Senner said she was nervous at the state competition for farm business management, but by the time she got to nationals, it was more about the experience.
“I figured, we’re all equal competitors, so just do your best,” she said of the state-winning teams at nationals. “It’s pretty tough. I like it; I like that kind of stuff.”
Gray Gordon earned a gold emblem, and Sandra Ek a bronze.
To make matters even more impressive, FFA members may only participate one time in any national convention event, and only one of those events per year. Ek represented Montana three times in her tenure as an FFA member, for meat evaluation in 2014, forestry in 2015, and farm business management this year.
Only three other members of the Kalispell FFA have ever done that in the group’s 76-year history, according to Justin Heupel, an agricultural education teacher for Kalispell high schools.
The entire Kalispell FFA was also recognized as a 3 Star National Chapter, the highest ranking that a chapter can receive. It is the chapter’s 72nd time earning the 3 Star recognition since 1942. The only other Montana chapter to be recognized with 3 Star was Missoula.
While the students are learning applicable lessons for farm life at the Agriculture Center southeast of Kalispell — they weld, brand cattle, castrate pigs, and much more — they also learn how to make sense out of the copious amounts of information.
“It’s really about decision making,” Heupel said. “Isn’t that a skill that’s desperately needed?”
Ashley Lau, an assistant coach who graduated from the program in 2008, said the students know not only how to buy a horse or judge meat, but also about growing up.
“It’s not just how to pick out a steak,” Lau said. “It’s also about how to be an adult.”
The students also say it’s about making friends all over the country, while sharing the common bond of working hard in agriculture. They meet at regional and state competitions, though the Kalispell team only competes in one or two major events each year, making their strides at nationals all the more striking.
So while the work may be hard, when it came time to prove their mettle, the Kalispell students showed up with their boots shined and smiles on their faces.
“We were just there to have fun,” Averie Olson said.
For more information on the Kalispell Public Schools Agricultural Center, visit www.sd5.k12.mt.us/Content2/1026 or the group’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/FlatheadFFA.