Two Lemoore High School students were finalists in the National FFA Convention held last month in Louisville, Kentucky.
Victor Johnson, 19, won first place in the area of specialty animal production for his work in beekeeping while Kelley Mellott, also 19, earned second place in the small animal production and care division for her work with guide dogs.
Mellott got to take home a plaque and $500 for being a finalist while Johnson received two plaques, one for winning and one for being a finalist, and $1,000.
“I’m so proud of both of them,” said FFA adviser and teacher Marybeth Hearn. “To get out of our region, win at state and be elected one of the four finalists in the nation for their categories is just huge, especially for a small community like Lemoore. That’s a huge accomplishment.”
Only four finalists nationwide are chosen in 49 categories as part of the convention’s proficiency awards. These awards are given out to students who have had success with their Supervised Agriculture Experiences (SAE), a long-term school project in a specific area of agriculture.
To be considered for nationals, an FFA student has to win at the regional and state levels first. Then, students interested in participating in the nationals have to fill out an application, describing their SAE and what they learned from the experience.
Once a student is picked, they participate in an interview at the convention, where a panel of judges asks them additional questions about their projects. Students up to age 21 can participate.
Mellott said the interview was one of the most challenging parts of the experience.
“The judges didn’t know much about guide dogs, so they were asking me a lot of questions about how it works and experience I had,” she said.
Johnson said the interview was also a difficult process or him, especially as he said the judges weren’t very engaged in the process.
“The interview was very exciting yet nerve-wracking,” he said. “The judges I had were very unenthusiastic about the interview. They weren’t giving much feedback, positive or negative, so I wasn’t sure what to make of it.”
Johnson said waiting to hear the results was the worst part of the experience, as they were announced a day after the interview was held.
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“I was surprised when heard I won, not because I thought I did bad but because the competition was tough,” he said. “It was a pretty awesome experience, something I wouldn’t trade for anything.”
Johnson was in the FFA all throughout high school. His main area of interest is beekeeping, as his family has owned a beekeeping business located in Oakdale called Gentry Apiaries for 58 years.
“It’s something I’ve done my whole life,” he said. “I’ve always had a good perspective of what goes on in that industry, so it gave me an edge. It was really cool because I was representing a family business at the convention as well.”
For his SAE, Johnson focused on breeding queen bees, honey production and orchard pollination. This was his first time at the convention.
Mellott has been in the FFA since she was a freshman and has worked with dogs during that time in an effort to prepare them for being guide dogs.
Students are assigned their own dogs to work with and are responsible for their care and training for a year or longer, helping them learn social and discipline skills before they are turned over to the Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael for additional training.
Mellott said going to the convention was a great experience for her. This was her second time attending but her first time going as a finalist. Hearn typically takes students to the convention to experience it, whether there are finalists competing or not.
“I got a lot more interview skills that I know are going to come in handy,” she said. “I met a lot of different people. Even the people I was against were really cool and friendly. We shared a lot of stories about our backgrounds.”
Hearn said Mellott and Johnson will now be working to get their American Degree next year, the highest award in the FFA program. The award is based on a lot of factors, such as how much time spent on the SAE, community service and high school records.
The students are focusing on their future outside the FFA program as well. Mellott is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in business entrepreneurship at California State University, Fresno, and Johnson is poised to start a career in legal administration for the U.S. Marines next year.
Hearn said the students have brought a lot to the FFA program and hopes that they got a lot out of the convention experience.
“I wanted them to see that you can come from a small town in California and play with the big dogs,” she said. “They did an awesome job. They represented our community and our chapter well. I hope this gives them a good solid foundation for the future.”