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Members of the Eastern View FFA chapter, (left to right) MaKayla Craig, Aiden Lusk, Hayley Henry, Sarah Southard, Elizabeth Bates and Eryn Twomey, took first place at the FFA state convention in June.

A group of Future Farmers of America students at Eastern View High School will head to Indianapolis in October to compete at the national level.

The students—MaKayla Craig, Sarah Southard, Hayley Henry, Aiden Lusk, Elizabeth Bates, and Eryn Twomey—earned first place in Agriculture Issues at the state FFA conference June 17-20 in Blacksburg.

Craig, who graduated in May, was also elected FFA President and will serve in that position during the next year.

“Our members worked very hard to be successful at State Convention and their hard work paid off,” said Melessa Suder, adviser for the FFA program at Eastern View.

To win, the group was required to research and present their knowledge on solar farming to a panel of judges at state competition. According to the Solar Trade Association, solar farming is the large-scale application of solar photovoltaic (PV) panels on established farmland that is used to generate green, clean electricity at scale. This electricity is fed directly into the power grid to provide electricity to homes and businesses.

“I learned a whole lot of information about solar farming during our research,” said Elizabeth Bates, a rising sophomore on the team. “The one aspect that really stuck out for me was the requirements and preparation for the installation of the solar panels. When I was younger, I just assumed that the companies would just place them on a piece of land and call it a day. However, that is not the case.

“The fact that they have to hire multiple operations to survey the land and see if they are near high voltage lines, etc.—it just fascinates me that there are so many prerequisites for these solar panels.”

The winning group, which consisted of one senior, one junior, one sophomore, and three freshmen, met four hours weekly since January to work on their project. They reached out to a solar farming executive and interviewed her by phone to learn more about the topic for their presentation.

The group learned skills they will take far beyond the FFA competition, members said.

“Going into this competition in January, we realized that this was going to take time and a sufficient amount of work to be successful,” Bates said. “We had to be patient and not rush our work. Communication was also key. We would split the research into separate parts and would plan our next practices.”

As part of the competition, the group created a portfolio of their research and presented their work to a variety of local groups, including Culpeper County administrators, the Farm Bureau Board of Directors, officials with the Culpeper Extension Office, the Farm Bureau’s Young Farmers group, Culpeper County Soil and Water Conservation District representatives, and the Culpeper Farmers Cooperative staff.

“During this competition, I learned that I could overcome my fear of public speaking,” Bates said. “When Mrs. Suder asked me to do this competition, I was very apprehensive because I was not a fan of public speaking. As time progressed and we completed more presentations, I suddenly found myself comfortable in those situations and now I am much more confident when I am speaking in front of larger groups.”

The students would take questions from each group and use those for their research, Suder said. Last month, they presented their research at competition by having each team member “perform” as a person involved in the solar farming business—the farmer, a county official, a solar power representative, an environmentalist, a tourism director, and a community member.

“I am really proud of the hard work and dedication these students have put towards this event and ultimately their victory,” Suder said. “They have learned a great deal about solar farming, but they have also proven to themselves that they can do those things they set their minds to. This group has been the most dedicated team I have worked with in the 15 years of teaching and coaching FFA teams.”

The EVHS team was one of five school groups to compete at the state competition in June. Once school begins, the group will prepare for the national competition, to be held Oct. 30 to Nov. 2 in Indianapolis, where the FFA headquarters is located.

EV Principal Dr. Felix Addo said the FFA team is just one example of the great work students are doing outside of the classroom.

“Congratulations to our FFA students and teachers for a monumental year which was highlighted by a first place award at the FFA State Convention,” Addo said. “We are excited and so proud of [the students] on this great accomplishment. We recognize and appreciate their efforts and dedication in preparation for the competition and ultimately the execution.

“A special congratulations to MaKayla Craig, Virginia State FFA President-elect 2019-2020 school year. MaKayla, we are happy and proud of you. You guys ROCK and Go Cyclones!”

Also at state competition, the school’s floriculture team earned seventh place overall with members Rebecca Schulte, Briana Walker, Cristal Figueroa and Marlen Orellana. Schulte also placed seventh individually.

Eastern View was recognized as a superior chapter and members Craig, Schulte, Orellana, Callie Gothard and Shiyenne St. Clair earned FFA Virginia State Degrees, the highest individual honor a student can receive.

To earn this, students have to be an active member of FFA for two years, completed at least 360 hours of instruction in agriculture issues in high school, demonstrated leadership ability, served as a chapter officer or on a major committee, and participated in a number of activities on a chapter level.

“State Convention was a wonderful experience for our members and growing chapter,” Suder said. “I am proud of every single student’s accomplishments, their dedication towards their events, and their pride in FFA. FFA produces future agricultural leaders and as far as I’m concerned, the future is very bright.”

Sharon Fitzgerald, a former journalist, is collaborative ELL and creative writing teacher at Eastern View High School in Culpeper.