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Second in the nation

When Kenmare FFA members Ashley Barnhart, Caleen Crider, Alex Grosser and Maria Hager stood before their peers in Indianapolis last week to accept a national award, they didn’t walk away with new cars, cash prizes or even tiaras and sashes.

11/02/11 (Wed)


When Kenmare FFA members Ashley Barnhart, Caleen Crider, Alex Grosser and Maria Hager stood before their peers in Indianapolis last week to accept a national award, they didn’t walk away with new cars, cash prizes or even tiaras and sashes.


They never wanted any of that.


Instead, they formed a Meats Evaluation and Technology Team, won the North Dakota state contest and prepared to win the national contest by spending hours studying the finer points of retail cuts available for lamb, pork and beef, and the grading and quality testing procedures used by the meat industry. They even made their own bacon and cooked various cuts of meat.


Not the typical interest of most high school teens.


They finished second, slightly disappointed in themselves, earning 2383 points out of a possible 2500 during the two-day contest, and only 20 points (less than one percentage point) behind the perennial powerhouse Texas team from the Florence FFA chapter.


In the meantime, they left other teams in their wake, including Washington, Wyoming, Oklahoma and Kansas, teams with long traditions of success in this most challenging and complex of national FFA events.


“That’s a big, competitive contest across the country,” said Kenmare FFA advisor Cameron Young. “There were some schools they knocked off that didn’t expect to see North Dakota coming!”


Contest highlights

The contest itself started the evening of October 19th with a written test. “We had 25 questions about general meat knowledge,” Alex said, “and then eight questions about meats formulation.”


“That’s where they set up a scenario, like for an order by a certain type of meat packer,” explained Ashley. “We look at the products and information they give us and come up with the right percentages and lowest costs for what they want.”


The girls finished that section within an hour, then drove nearly 100 miles to Champagne, Illinois, where they competed in the practical part of the contest the next morning at the University of Illinois. “We were actually in the coolers with the product that day,” said Ashley.


All the contestants were separated from their other team members and divided into groups, which rotated through 12 stations. “There are 134 retail cuts of meat for beef, pork and lamb,” Alex said. “They take out 40 and you identify them based on the muscle and bone shapes.”


Then the groups started their placing classes. “You’re given four cuts of meet and you have to judge them, based on the amount of lean and fat and the quality of the product,” Caleen said.


“And four of those six are carcass classes, where you judge the whole thing,” Ashley added.


The contest is not known for being elegant, as the girls spent from 9 am until about 12:30 pm with the meat, moving from the retail room kept at about 40 degrees to the carcass rooms at 30 degrees. “We were very bundled,” said Alex.


Caleen shook her head at the memory. “I wore two sweatshirts, my fleece Columbia and my winter coat,” she said. “And a T-shirt. It’s very necessary!”


“And then we wear gloves, hoods, hard hats and our steel-toed boots,” said Ashley.


The event concluded with a team activity involving data collected about the quality and yield grading of cuts they had seen that morning. The Kenmare team excelled at this contest element, earning all 40 possible points.


In fact, the team aced several components of the contest and all four Kenmare girls earned gold awards. Maria finished as the third highest individual with 799 possible points, right behind Oklahoma and Texas students at 801 points. Ashley came in as the 8th best individual in the nation with a score of 777.


Caleen finished just out of the top ten at 13th place with 767 points and Alex placed 33rd with 729, all far above the average individual score of 639 points.


And while their plaque included the words “second place,” they all recognized their hard work, determination and sacrifices made during the past year and a half of preparation allowed them to advance to the national level and serve notice they were a force to be considered.


Coach Gary Martens

That preparation started in June 2010, when Maria, Ashley and Caleen entered the state meats judging contest and earned gold awards. “We knew enough to get by,” said Ashley. They didn’t qualify for the national contest that year, but they decided to recruit Alex and set a goal to win the state event in 2011.


Gary Martens, a former ag instructor at Carson and Stanley who now ranches south of Ross and works in the oilfield, offered his services as a coach for the team. “Cameron Young and I taught together and have known each other since college,” he said. “Meats is something I’ve really enjoyed.”


Mr. Martens had coached a Carson FFA team to second place and a Stanley FFA team to eighth place in the national contest before, and he himself competed on the North Dakota State University Senior Meats Judging Team. Before the 2011 state FFA convention, the Stanley and Kenmare teams practiced together under his supervision.


“These are wonderful young ladies,” he said. “After they won state, they made the decision they wanted to win the national contest. You could push these kids, but they just kept an upbeat attitude and a sense of humor through it all.”


Doing what it takes to win

“Right after state, Mr. Young sent us each a text message that said, ‘Is winning state good enough or do you want to win nationals?’” said Ashley.


“We decided as a team,” Alex said.


They knew Maria would be leaving to start her freshman year as an agribusiness major at NDSU, but the girls made plans to accommodate her, including a couple of weekend practices when she came home. Their preparation also included hours spent studying photographs of retail cuts and the “Yellow Pages of Meat” individually and together.


“That’s the 1994 Consumers Guide to Meat,” explained Alex.


They visited the meat locker in Berthold and Dakota Natural Meats in Fargo to watch processing practices.


They also accepted Mr. Martens’s challenge to butcher a hog themselves in the ag classroom at Kenmare High School one Friday night, using the football players scale to weigh the meat. “We learned how to make all the cuts,” said Alex.


“I thought it was really helpful, seeing how the wholesales cuts come off the animal,” Ashley said. Then she laughed. “That’s when I realized the loins are connected to the ribs! I don’t think I knew that before.”


“We cut meat and cured ham until 11:30 that night,” said Alex.


In the meantime, Maria worked in the NDSU meat lab and attended practices twice a week with the NDSU collegiate meats judging team, which she intends to join next year as a sophomore.


All too soon, the national event arrived, and the girls traveled together, ahead of the rest of the Kenmare chapter, to Indianapolis with Mr. Martens and Trent Schneider, a rancher from Hebron who is also a former meats judging coach and an expert on quality grading. He quizzed the girls relentlessly.


Along the way, from 6 am until midnight each day, they studied old contest exams, reviewed the “Yellow Pages” and made six stops to practice, including Dakota Natural Beef and the NDSU meat lab in Fargo, the meat lab at South Dakota State University in Brookings, the meat lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the Tyson plant in Joslin, Illinois, and the Purdue University meat lab in Lafayette, Indiana. They also stopped by the American Royal collegiate meats judging contest taking place at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.


“We spent 20-plus hours in the cooler,” said Alex.


“And that was just on the way down there!” added Caleen.


Maria appreciated the study time. “I told Mr. Young I felt like I was going to be the weak link, but after traveling together and making the stops, I felt pretty prepared for the contest,” she said.


Mr. Young knew the team was prepared for the national event. “They worked hard and did everything right,” he said. “Second place in the nation is something to be joyous about. They outdid some teams that are perennially in the top five.”


He explained that some states, including Texas, offer extensive competition opportunities at the district, state and regional level that prepare those teams for the national contest. “Those teams are seeing a lot more contest time,” he said. “[The Kenmare] girls had to make up for that out of sheer diligence and willpower to do what they did.”


The Kenmare team’s effort went noticed among the other state teams. “They received some good compliments and pats on the back from other advisors and teams,” said Mr. Young.


According to Young, members of the third-place Washington team made a point to celebrate the North Dakota team’s finish. “They understand what it takes to do that,” he said.


Beyond the national convention

The girls recognized the significance of their accomplishment. “Three years ago, if you’d told me our team would do that well and walk across the national stage, I wouldn’t have believed you,” said Maria. “Now, it feels good to say we are the second place team.”


“Personally, it’s nice to know we can compete with other people at the national level,” added Ashley.


“I’ve learned that dedication and hard work pay off, and that we can have a lot of fun while working hard,” said Alex.


Caleen, who raises and shows registered beef cattle with her family but has never been involved in the processing part of it, said other breeders immediately responded to the team’s success with phone calls and messages. “It’s an honor to say you’ve done that contest,” she said. “My being in the ag industry already, other people recognize that.”


She intends to continue studying animal science at either NDSU or the University of Nebraska-Lincoln next fall. Alex and Ashley are interested in non-agricultural fields, but they said the decision-making and communication skills they honed for this event will serve them well, as well as the inspiration from their advisors.


The four girls agreed they wanted their success to be a motivating factor for other, younger Kenmare FFA chapter members. “This shows them they can compete at the national level,” said Caleen. “They just have to work hard for it.”


“They saw us working and studying and talking about it,” added Ashley.


“We always try to do our best and be dedicated,” Maria said about the chapter. “This shows what FFA is all about. We’re not just there to mess around. It’s a credit to Mr. Young and how he runs things in Kenmare. FFA is a place to gain life skills, and it’s important for kids to get involved.”


Mr. Martens downplayed his own role as coach. “There were two things that led to this team’s success,” he said. “One is that the team would never exist without Mr. Young and the quality program and dedication he shows. The second is that these kids never would have won without their own hard work, attitude and dedication. That’s an incredible finish, for all four of those kids to earn a gold, and I felt grateful to be a part of it.”


For his part, Mr. Young, who also received the Honorary American Degree at the national convention after being nominated by the North Dakota FFA Foundation for one of the organization’s highest recognitions, said this team saw so much success because they were willing to do their best and then be pushed to do more.


“There are not a lot of kids who can stand up to that,” he said, “but that’s what it takes to win a national contest.”


He continued, “I hope the chapter can take a lot of pride in this and see that somebody had to do some work to get there! This win serves as an example of what can be done if they put in the time and effort.”


With the national contest behind them, the four girls will turn their attention to other commitments in their lives, including music, sports, drama, academics and campus organizations. They are also working to thank the many individuals and businesses in Kenmare and around the state that supported their efforts with financial donations and items like sweatshirts, hard hats and gloves for all those hours spent in the coolers.


Memories of the trip to Indianapolis and the contest, as well as random facts about retail meat cuts, stay with these girls through all their other activities, however. Alex spoke for the group as she said, “This is unforgettable!”