Hillary Hull, 29, Yelm High School agriculture teacher and Future Farmers of America advisor, noted that the Yelm FFA has experienced a huge increase in the past few years in the number of YHS graduates earning their American FFA degrees. "It used to be only two to three students each year earning it, but now we have about seven to eight students each year for the last few years," she said. In this image, Hull's watering a hanging flower basket in the high school's vegetable house on Friday, April 17, before the school's first-ever "virtual" plant sale that occurred a few days later.

Just call ’em The Magnificent Seven.

You mean the classic 1960 Western film starring Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen and other gunslingers who protect a Mexican village from marauding bandits?

No, not them.

Our magnificent ones, though, are just as indomitable — but in an agricultural sort of way. They are the seven recent graduates of the Yelm High School Future Farmers of America program (FFA) who will receive their American FFA degrees during the virtual National FFA Convention Oct. 27-29.

The Yelm FFA graduates are: Isabela Burke, Abbie Dorhauer, Kelsey Hinton, Ty Hummel, Cassandra Hyder, Jacob Sneddon, and Addyson Wilson-Heid. You’ll find out more about them in future issues of the Nisqually Valley News, but for now we’ll tell you a little about the requirements to qualify for the American FFA degrees and the challenges these young women and men faced in pursuing their goals.

According to the National FFA Organization, the American FFA degree is the “gold standard” for FFA members — the organization’s highest achievable degree.

“The American FFA Degree show’s an FFA member’s dedication to his or her chapter and state FFA association,” the organization’s statement reads. “It demonstrates the effort FFA members apply toward their supervised agricultural experience and the outstanding leadership abilities and community involvement they exhibited through their FFA career.

“American FFA Degree recipients show promise for the future and have gone above and beyond to achieve excellence.”

And in written answers to the NVN, Yelm High School agricultural education FFA advisors and teachers echoed the national organization’s sentiments.

Dusti Nash, a YHS FFA advisor and agriculture teacher, noted that the exceptionality of the American FFA Degree will help the Yelm awardees gain an edge as they seek jobs in their chosen careers.

“This is an award that is nationally recognized, and a number of employers know how much it takes to receive this award,” Nash wrote. “This will stand out on students’ resumes and applications because people will know the amount of hours and time it took to invest in a project like this. Having this on their resumes is not only a great talking point, but will open up doors that they otherwise wouldn’t have gotten.”

Obtaining the degree is not for the irresolute. Eligibility requirements listed by the National FFA Organization are as long as an orangutan’s arm.

So take a deep breath, folks, and review what these extraordinary students have achieved over the past few years ...

First off, and perhaps most importantly, recipients must have received their state FFA degree. 

To obtain that degree, they must have 1.) received the chapter FFA degree; 2.) been an FFA member for at least two years by the time they receive the state degree; 3.) completed in high school the equivalent of at least two years of agricultural education, which includes a Supervised Agricultural Experience (SAE) program; 4.) earned and productively invested $1,000, or worked at least 300 hours in excess of scheduled class time specific to a SAE or completed a combination of the two; 5.) demonstrated leadership ability; 6.) demonstrated competency in an agricultural occupation; 7.) participated in planning and completing chapter program activities; 8.) participated in five different FFA activities above chapter level; 9.) and completed at least 25 hours of community service in two different activities.

Then, to meet the additional requirements for the American FFA degree, the YHS graduates must have also: 1.) completed the equivalent of at least three years of secondary school agricultural education or equivalents; 2.) graduated from high school at least 12 months prior to the national convention at which the degree would be granted; 3.) maintained records to substantiate an outstanding SAE program; 4.) earned at least $10,000 and productively invested $7,500 in an SAE project, or earned and productively invested $2,000 and worked 2,250 hours in excess of class time; 5.) demonstrated outstanding leadership abilities and community involvement and achieved a “C” or better scholastic record; 6.) participated in at least 50 hours of community service in at least three different service activities in addition to their chosen SAE.

According to Matt Mounts, a YHS FFA advisor and agricultural teacher, Yelm’s American FFA degree recipients all exhibited similar traits that enabled them to reach the FFA pinnacle.

“If I had to choose two words, it would be ‘resilience’ and ‘determination’ in order to maintain such a long-term project like this,” he wrote. “It can be easy to give up, especially with projects like these where ups and downs come along the way. Resilience and determination are what all of these kids have in order to achieve such a large accomplishment.”

Cassie Hyder, for instance, who graduated from YHS in April 2019, exhibited just those qualities when she initiated a diverse SAE high school project that involved a variety of farm animals — rabbits, sheep, goats, swine and horses.

Hyder met her SAE goals by experimenting with breeding projects and subsequently selling her rabbits and other market animals. As Hyder’s example illustrates, successfully completing an SAE can be a grueling years-long process that requires equal amounts of sweat equity and business acumen.

According to Hillary Hull, Yelm FFA advisor and agriculture teacher, FFA students investing in their SAE projects must take into account a variety of factors as they work toward earning $10,000 or more throughout the process.

Hyder, for example, not only had to shell out money to purchase her menagerie of animals, but as she nurtured and bred them also had to cover a variety of other expenses. Think feed — grain and hay — veterinarian bills, nourishment supplements, and intermittent regular care such as trimming hooves.

Expenses accumulate quickly, Hull noted.

 “All of those expenses can add up in a hurry when your project is as big as the ones these kids have,” Hull wrote.

Though Hyder is still among a select few who end up meeting American FFA degree standards, Yelm High School has produced an increasing number of outstanding FFA graduates over the past few years, Hull wrote.

“We have seen a huge increase in the last few years since we have become an affiliate chapter — enabling all YHS agriculture students to have their FFA dues paid for,” Hull wrote.

She added that YHS graduates receiving American FFA degrees have increased from about three students a year in the past to nearly eight a year now — and noted that only about 1 percent of the total FFA membership in the United States earns their American degree each year.   

And just applying for the American FFA degree is a study in perseverance. Hull wrote that the online application takes hours for students and their high school advisors to accurately detail their SAE projects and provide other pertinent information.

“Students have to keep accurate records of all expenses and income over the course of their projects, most of them 3 to 5 years,” she explained. 

Once applications are complete, the National FFA Organization reviews them, and students who are accepted receive pins and certificates at the National FFA Convention.

And that’s how this year’s Magnificent Seven proved their mettle in a way even swashbuckler Steve McQueen might have admired.

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