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Maddi Siegel (2) excitedly points to her Grandpa Mark Cronrath in the combine during harvest 2016
on Zell-Cron farms in Davenport.

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Students join falling numbers discussion

Liberty High School FFA team tackles issue for state competition

Update 5/18/17: According to Steve Braun, Liberty High School FFA advisor, the ag issues team placed 2nd at state, and their presentation was very well received. Here’s what he had to say about his students: “The ag issues team did an outstanding job of presenting and answering the judges’ questions. I’m so proud of all our FFA members and how hard they worked to prepare for this event.”

May 2017
By Trista Crossley


Still confused about preharvest sprout? Alpha-amylase? The Hagberg-Perten test? Give the Liberty High School FFA Ag Issues team about 14 minutes, and they’ll unscramble falling numbers for you while debating the merits of testing for this quality issue.

The seven members of the ag issues team have been working on their presentation since September, interviewing farmers and industry representatives up and down the grain chain to understand falling numbers, the testing method and what the test results mean. They’ve invested hours of research and attended meetings where falling numbers was being discussed. They’ve also practiced their presentation in front of different audiences, refining their talking points and polishing their delivery. All that work is in preparation for the 87th Washington FFA Convention May 11-13 in Pullman, Wash., where the Liberty FFA group will go head to head with other high school teams during the Agricultural Issues Forum that is part of the convention’s leadership development events.

“The main purpose of this event is not just for ag students to pick and learn a topic, but to then go out in the community to make the community aware of what is going on,” said Steve Braun, the Liberty High School FFA advisor. The team couldn’t have picked a more relevant topic, one that is still going strong after nearly a year.

Shortly after the 2016 wheat harvest began, reports of beautiful-looking wheat that was testing below 300 for falling numbers began to surface. By the end of the harvest, nearly 38 percent of Eastern Washington’s soft white wheat had been hit, costing farmers millions of dollars in discounts. For some growers, this was the first time they’d heard about falling numbers, not to mention the fact that they could get dinged at the elevator and by crop insurance for it. The wheat industry went into overdrive to figure out what had happened. There were forums, workshops, grower meetings, articles in newspapers and magazines. Legislators came calling, researchers were called in, and the industry mobilized to find a solution. Much of the controversy swirled around the method of testing for falling numbers, with some growers questioning the effectiveness of the test and why it was even necessary.

“It’s a very relevant topic in agriculture today, and it’s been affecting the farmers’ bottom line a lot more,” said sophomore Jon Denny, adding that his family farm had experienced low falling number wheat in the past.

The team investigated both sides of the issue, and in their presentation, they explore some of the viewpoints for and against testing for falling numbers. Sophomore Isaak Ottmar said many of their presentations have been to farmers, and the feeling is that most of those farmers don’t like the testing. Several members of the FFA group said researching the issue has made them change their own minds, especially when they consider the importance of maintaining the Pacific Northwest’s tradition of exporting high-quality wheat.

“When we started this out, I was against the test,” said Sophomore Ashlyn Bartels. “My dad is an ag lender, so he experiences first hand what happens to the farmers when they have a low falling number test and how it hurts them financially. But after doing research and putting together our presentation, it made me rethink that maybe it is bad for farmers, but it helps the export market.”

According to Braun, FFA takes a tremendous amount of pride in helping develop leadership skills, promoting personal growth and laying a foundation for later career success. By tackling such a complex topic, the students have had to focus on the relevant points and draft clear, easy-to-understand talking points. At the end of the students’ presentation, judges will have a chance to test the students’ background knowledge by asking questions about falling numbers that weren’t necessarily addressed in the presentation.

“A skill we often overlook is that they are critically thinking, but they are thinking and decision making and responding intelligently to a question in a heartbeat, and a lot of people shutdown when confronted with that,” Braun said.

To test their knowledge and to practice their presentation, the students have been performing it in front of audiences for the past several months, learning to deal with constructive criticism. In fact, the current version of their presentation bears little resemblance to earlier versions as the students have incorporated suggested ideas and dropped others.

“Another big part of FFA, especially in ag issues, is public speaking. I know how big a deal public speaking is, especially in the business world. You have to be able to give presentations to boards and directors. You need to be able to do public speaking, so this event has really prepared me for that,” said junior Matthew Burley.

Braun said he is proud of his FFA students, especially because many of them are also involved in other school activities such as sports, not to mention keeping up with regular schoolwork.

“To do well at ag issues and to have these kids participate at a high level takes the support of your school and administration, support of the community. It’s a school-wide commitment to be successful at this contest,” Braun said.

Photo caption: The Liberty High School FFA Ag Issues team has spent more than seven months working on their state presentation on falling numbers. The members of the team are (front row from left) Haley Marsh, Justin King, Ashlyn Bartels and (back row from left) Matthew Burley, Jon Denny, Isaak Ottmar and Alec Fletcher.