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By STEVEN NALLEY
Rusty Coats has taught at Millsaps for 20 years, and for most of those years, Millsaps students have had a place at the National Future Farmers of America Organization Convention and Expo.
We've won (at the state level) in nursery landscaping every year but two in the last 19 years. In horticulture, we've won every year but three," Coats said. "We just put a lot of time into it. Once you win it, it puts pressure on you to win it again."
Millsaps' latest crop of aspiring agricultural professionals will travel to the 85th annual National FFA Convention October 24-27 at the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis, Ind., having once again earned top state honors at Mississippi State University in April.
Coats, a horticulture teacher, coordinates the Millsaps FFA students together with agricultural science teacher Linda Jack. Each year, Jack said, the students have earned their place at nationals through interest, practice, dedication and hard work.
"You've got to commit to it," Jack said. "One of the reasons we can keep doing this is the students that won last year encourage the kids coming in this year. Their enthusiasm rubs off on the new students."
The students attending nationals are divided into four teams in different competitions: a floriculture team and a nursery landscaping team coached by Coats, and an Envirothon team and a veterinary science team coached by Jack. The veterinary science competition is new for this year's convention, Jack said, but she and the students were ready.
"A part of our curriculum deals with animal science, so... I'm just expanding on the unit that's already there," Jack said. "I have a background as a veterinary technician, my husband's a veterinarian, and I'm on the board of veterinary medical technicians at MSU. They are helping a lot over there. We're getting a lot of support from the VMTs."
Jack said she is still adapting to the new competition, but the Envirothon is also a challenge with its open-ended nature. She said the Envirothon team has to compete in hands-on activities and a written test in four different topics: forestry, water quality, wildlife and soils.
"The most challenging part of that is the current issue," Jack said. "Every year, there's a current issue that ties all of those (four topics) in, and they students have to write a paper and do a group presentation."
Coats said the nursery landscaping team team not only has to take a written test and identify plants but also propagate plants and identify insects, tools, weeds and diseases. They will also be tested on business acumen, he said.
"They have to pretend they're working in a garden center," Coats said. "A judge will come up to them (acting as) a customer. (They) also have to do a landscape drawing. (It involves) a lot of geometry. It's not just hands-on stuff; it takes a lot of academic skills also.
"The floriculture (team) does a job interview," Coats added. "They've been practicing with each other with questions. They've had to pretend they're selling (flowers), that they're in a garden. It's been a lot of one-on-one stuff."
Because of the emphasis on career and business skills, Coats said, the conventions are not merely competitions. In fact, he said, they are more commonly called "career development events."
"To me, probably the strongest thing about these contests... is the way (students) learn to present themselves," Coats said. "I think the main thing it does is it builds a lot of confidence in them. It doesn't matter if they go into nursery, landscaping or floriculture, they can still use these speaking skills in their careers."
If the students do choose agricultural careers, Jack said, the competitions are comprehensive enough to fully inform their decisions and prepare them for work. She said it also shows them there is more to agriculture than plowing, planting and harvesting.
"(Agricultural professionals) are biotechnologists; they are computer analysts; they are genetic engineers," Jack said. "These contests give (students) a background in areas of interest and generally expose them to more career options. When a veterinary technology (competitor) gets through, they could work on cats or cattle."