Forestry students win in statewide FFA competition
MIDDLEBURY — For students in the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center’s Forestry and Natural Resource Management Program, the taste of victory at the FFA Winter Forestry Competition was sweet — or, to be more specific, it tasted like maple syrup.
The class of seven students got an opportunity to demonstrate their skills this past January at the statewide competition at the Vermont Farms Expo in Essex Junction. While the program won first in the state, juniors Greg Ouellette of Bristol took first and Jacob LaFleche of Panton took third as individuals.
“It feels good,” LaFleche, 16, said, “It’s amazing that our teacher let us study as much as we did.”
To get a sense of just how specialized the career center students’ training is, one need only consider a sampling of the skills learned in the program: They include maple syrup production, fisheries science, business management, heavy equipment operation and surveying. The hooks on the walls of their classroom are crowded with orange chainsaw chaps, hip-high rubber waders, helmets and charts with titles like “Chain Saw Trouble Shooting Guide.”
It’s not what most teenagers glean from their high school classes, but that’s what the forestry program’s top scorers in the annual program enjoy about it.
“Most people underestimate what others are doing to conserve what’s around them,” LaFleche said.
Starting at the end of the first semester and in the first weeks of January, the class memorized identifying features of a variety of trees and plants. They also spent, by LaFleche and Ouellette’s estimates, a total of 20 hours studying and taking practice exams.
In Essex Junction, where the expo was held, they joined 200 students from around the state in a competition that was divided into two parts. The first was identifying trees and infections caused by animal or fungus.
In the next portion, students were given a series of maple syrup samples and asked to judge them based on its grade, smell, taste and color. Some samples were labeled correctly, but judges attempted to throw off the students with incorrect hydrometer readings (which measure the sugar content), flavors or smells.
At the conclusion, the Middlebury Forestry and Natural Resources Program claimed the title. Ouellette walked away with a new ax after taking first, while LaFleche took home a pair of snips for cutting sap tubing for his third-place effort.
After sugaring in the spring, the forestry students’ next competition will be at the FFA’s annual Vermont conference at Shelburne Farms in May. There, the “Game of Logging” will require students to quickly (and safely) complete standard log cuts using chainsaws. Should they win, they’ll advance to the national-level competition in Kentucky.
LaFleche said he plans to put the skills he’s learned to use as a wildlife biologist, while Ouellette hopes to go to college for athletic training and use the technical skills around his home in Bristol, possibly managing a small sugaring operation.
For now, the students are busy wrapping up research projects before they begin a long stretch of operating sugarhouses in this spring. LaFleche is measuring the sap flow of certain stands of maples, while Ouellette is wrapping up an analysis of the maple market in Vermont and Canada, studying the fluctuations in the cost of maple products every year. While he enjoys the time in the classroom, Ouellette said he enjoys working with his hands the most.
“I’ve liked learning how to use a chainsaw and boil sap,” he said.
When the sap starts flowing, both Ouellette and LaFleche will be doing plenty of that. During sugaring season, their class will spend half-days every day at the career center’s own sugarworks in Weybridge, where they produce maple syrup, candy and cream to sell before returning to the career center for more classes.
“We’ll be in there for weeks, just boiling,” said LaFleche. “It just depends on the weather.”