By Sherrie Norris
Avery County Future Farmers of America left their mark last week in Indianapolis, Indiana, at the 2021 National FFA Convention & Expo. During the event, attended by over 60,000 people from across the country, two Avery High FFA alum received their hard-earned American Degree, while two current students — chosen from 100 entries — were named among the Top 10 in the annual talent competition.
Elijah Gragg and Ariel Horney, both 2020 high school graduates, received their American Degree, the highest honor available to (graduated) FFA students, who have demonstrated the highest level of commitment to FFA and who have made significant accomplishments in their supervised agricultural experience.
During the event’s talent competition on Friday, Oct. 29, which was televised on RFD-TV, Avery County’s Walker Boone and Ethan Church performed before a packed audience of their peers, parents, advisors and guests, and at other times throughout the gathering.
“The National Convention was amazing,” said Dewayne Krege, who, along with Gretchen Blackburn, serves as an advisor for Avery High’s FFA. “We had the privilege of taking our junior and senior officers to Indianapolis — Sydnie Johnson, Sierra Smith, Cameron Burnop, Ethan Church, Walker Boone, Lane Hoilman, and Bryson Whitley. Getting to see Ethan and Walker perform in front of over 40,000 people was amazing. They performed twice daily at the convention center lobby and performed three times in Lucas Oil Stadium. As guests of the incredibly talented duo, we got front row seats to each session. On Saturday, we also got to see Ariel Horney and Elijah Gragg receive the coveted gold key — their American Degrees. We are so proud of all of them!”
The daughter of James and Tabitha Horney, Ariel attends Wilkes Community College, is majoring in horticulture and works at C and K Huffman Greenhouse. Her sister, Cindy, is also in FFA.
Elijah is the son of Joey and Joan Gragg. He works on the family farm, which includes a nursery and Carolina Sun Produce, and also is employed at Baxters.
While in Indianapolis, Krege said, his group enjoyed a private tour of the Brickyard Crossing Golf Course, including walking two of the four holes that are inside of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway race track. “Additionally, we had an extensive tour of the golf course maintenance facility and the inner workings of the high-tech irrigation system that consists of over 5000 sprinkler heads on the property — all operated by computers and even by the manager’s phones.”
Other fun events included a visit to Fogo de Chao to enjoy the experience of a Brazilian steak house. “We also enjoyed watching our students network with vendors and other students from all over the United States at the Career Expo. Our students also enjoyed playing cards and games with others from Colorado in the lobby each night.”
As an advisor, Krege said, “We have the opportunity to see students grow. I got to witness Ethan and Walker as they prepared for their online audition and got to share their excitement then they were informed that they were one of only 20 acts chosen out of over 100 to compete in Indianapolis.”
Regretfully, Krege said, he was not yet in Indy when they received word that they made the top 10, which allowed them to play at several events, including the American Degree ceremony.
“I was so confident they would finish in the Top 3, but I was even more impressed at their excitement and joy for those who did,” he emphasized. “I will always cherish the backstage laughs that we shared and will never forget getting to stand there with every single one of the nation’s talent finalists as they chose to hold hands and pray before their competitive performances. It was a wonderful experience that still brings me to tears. These kids were praying for God’s glory to be evident through the talents He had blessed them with — and I’ve never been more proud.”
This year’s National FFA Convention is one neither he nor his students will ever forget, Krege added. “We had loads of fun, even at the fundraiser event that took place to help support our talent competitors. I’m extremely grateful for my job and the opportunities it affords me so often. To God be the glory!”
Krege’s excitement and pride was matched by that of Gwen Clark, Avery High’s longtime, now retired, agriculture teacher and FFA advisor, who cheered the club on from home. Reliving many years of taking students to the national convention, Clark was beside herself at this group’s latest achievements.
“Less than 1 percent of National FFA membership will earn the American FFA Degree,” Clark shared. “Ariel and Elijah bring Avery County’s FFA to 40 American Degrees since 2011. “
Clark further explained the requirements for the prestigious honors. “To get an American degree, you have to graduate high school (and until the age of 21) continue to pay your FFA membership dues, even while in college or working on a job. This allows members that did not take a class their freshman or sophomore year, but eventually started taking ag classes, to still be able to work towards the goal.”
She added, “Now that Ariel and Elijah are American degrees they are automatically alumni. Some kids never go for this. Also, there are some in the military who can still get this degree if they choose.”
Clark said Avery High has always encouraged stunts to immediately go for their degree. “For example, if someone has been in FFA through school — and met the requirements — then they are qualified in all but three things for the American Degree, graduation being one of the three.”
Also, Clark said, a few will graduate high school and work in agriculture to finish meeting the financial, hours or agricultural experience qualifications.
“With Ariel and Elijah working with their own family farms, they met their hours and financial obligations.”
Picking Their Way To National Competition, Avery’s Walker Boone and Ethan Church Among Top 10 Most Talented FFA Students in the Country
By Sherrie Norris
As members of Future Farmers of America, the Avery County High School chapter, Walker Boone and Ethan Church had prepared diligently for their big day in the spotlight during the FFA’s recent national convention.
Earlier this year, the duo was among 100 potential acts that had initially submitted an application, along with a recorded audition, with hopes of making it to the final 10 and have a chance to perform at the 2021 convention in Indianapolis, Indiana. And they did just that.
It was no surprise to anyone that the two were first among 20 acts chosen from throughout the country earlier this year to perform during the convention’s general sessions, meal functions and receptions. During the convention and expo, all acts had the opportunity to compete in three rounds to be judged on preparation, delivery, engagement, entertainment value and technical ability.
The young men spent many hours of rehearsals, at hometown fundraising concerts and any opportunity they had before their debut at the convention’s preliminary competition on Wednesday, Oct. 27.
Coming in with a Top 10 spot, the two moved on to the finals on Friday on the stage of Lucas Oil Stadium, which was televised live on RFD-TV and streamed live via FFA.org.
Also, on Saturday morning following the main event, the duo performed as one of three acts during the American Degree Ceremony, at which two of their peers received their coveted degrees.
As the excitement mounted, especially for Boone and Church, and their families who accompanied them to Indianapolis, many televisions back home were tuned into the popular rural station for their amazing performance. Collective cheers for their success could literally be heard throughout the High Country.
While they fell a bit short of the “big win,” it was still a huge honor to be in the Top 10 nationally and was an experience of a lifetime, the two agree; they were quick to express their heartfelt appreciation for all the support they had received prior to and during their trip to Indiana.
Boone told High Country Press the experience was “amazing.” He enjoyed meeting new people and making new friends. “I loved being able to perform at Lucus Oil stadium and seeing how the FFA has encouraged its members to do great things. I just want to thank everyone for their support and help in making this experience possible and would like to thank the Lord for His many blessings.”
Church shared, “From start to finish, it was a phenomenal experience. The highlight for me was the session two performance where I was asked to play a mandolin feature on the stage in Lucas Oil Stadium. I would like to thank our community for the support that we have received; it has been overwhelming. Special thanks to our FFA advisors Dewayne Krege and Gretchen Blackburn. Most of all, I want to thank my Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ for the love of the music and the opportunities that we have had to share it with such a huge audience.”
Walker Boone is a senior at Avery High and is the son of Pat and Carrie Boone. Ethan, a junior, is the son of Lynn and Melissa Church.
Mahindra USA and Wrangler were sponsors for the annual National FFA Talent competition.
More About FFA
The National FFA Organization is a school-based national youth leadership development organization of more than 735,000 student members as part of 8,817 local FFA chapters in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. The FFA mission is to make a positive difference in the lives of students by developing their potential for premier leadership, personal growth, and career success through agricultural education. For more, click to the National FFA Organization online at ffa.org and on Facebook and Twitter.
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