Polk FFA team carries tradition, family feel to national land judging competition

Polk County High's land judging team bound for national competition includes, from left, Ailey Morlino, Natalee Davis, Taylor Newton and Matt Mullis.

The trip that a group of Polk County High FFA students will take next week isn’t just about taking part in a national competition.

When four students join PCHS agricultural education teacher Chauncey Barber and former Polk Central teacher Richard Smith on the journey to the National Land and Range Contest in Oklahoma City, Okla., it will also be a trip about education, about tradition, about being part of what Barber calls the family feel around the FFA program.

Juniors Natalee Davis, Taylor Newton, Ailey Morlino and Matt Mullis will represent Polk County High School at the 67th annual national competition, slated for May 1-3. The group will leave Sunday to begin the drive to Oklahoma.

It marks the second straight year that a Polk County team has qualified for the national event.

“It is hard to make it to nationals in the first place, much less in back-to-back years,” Barber said. “We did it in 2010 and 2011. Mr. Smith and I enjoy working with the students and we both are competitive and want our teams to be competitive at all levels.

“I tell students all the time, you need to come for a career development event such as land judging. You may get a chance to go to the nationals in Oklahoma. They use to look at me kind of weird, but since so many kids have gotten to go, the past teams tell others what a fun trip it is. Therefore, it is easier to get students to commit.”

The nationals trip will be the 16th for Smith and the eighth for Barber, who cites his former high school teacher as his inspiration.

“I tell people all the time that people involved daily in agriculture develop a unique bond with each other,” Barber said. “Mr. Smith has always stood by his students. I can never repay him for what he has done for me in the past or just daily.

“He stood by me when I was a hard-headed and know-it-all teenager and college student. He continues to help Ashley Gilbert, my co-teacher, and I with our agriculture program. It can be 11:30 p.m. and the weatherman is calling for a frost. Mr. Smith calls me and meets me at the high school and helps me put the plants back in the greenhouse.”

Growing that sense of family is a key part of the trip to Oklahoma and one reason why the Polk County team opts to drive across the country rather than fly.

“It gives us time to study and talk, but more importantly we drive so we can make the trip very educational for students,” Smith said.

The students will visit the Oklahoma City National Memorial, built on the site of the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building, among other stops.

“When the kids tour the memorial you see a different look on their faces,” Barber said. “It is just something a person would have to observe for themselves.”

The Polk County High School FFA Land Judging Team couldn’t make the trip without local help from local businesses and sponsors, including Polk County Farm Bureau, Carolina Farm Credit, Nature Storehouse, The Hay Rack, Edward Jones, D&S Asphalt, Stott’s Ford, Polk County Sheriff’s Department, Polk County Soil and Water, John and Pam Vining, Ruff Logging and Hillside Hair and Nail Salon. The team is still looking for additional sponsors for the trip, and anyone interested can contact Barber at (828) 817-0528.

“Tradition and family are at the core of the Polk County High School FFA program,” Barber said. “We are family and stick with each other through thick and thin.”