GRANITE FALLS - A group of 19 FFA students from the Yellow Medicine East chapter recently went on a trip of a lifetime, traveling to the Hawaiian island of Maui to learn about its agriculture.
Darrel Refsland, YME FFA adviser, said the adventure took three years of planning and a lot of fundraising - which included a 40 percent increase in fruit sales from the previous year - but was well worth the effort.
"The kids learned a lot," Refsland said. "We had a mixture of tours and some beach time. The kids really enjoyed it."
Nineteen members of the Yellow Medicine East FFA chapter had the opportunity to experience fun, educational tours of the agriculture on the Hawaiian island of Maui on March 20-26. The students — Tyler Knutson, Brent Hegna, Adam Koepke, Kolten Anderson, Luke Stevens, Garrett Cole, Ted Refsland, Justin Stock, Patrick Bukowski, Reed Raddatz, Gannon Gustafson, Tim Savig, Jake Sharkey, Elizabeth Halvorson, Taylor Dambroten, Kendal Borning, Jeanne Rosenau, Kayla Hegna and Ashly Sneller — all wore matching FFA T-shirts with a tractor and palm tree on the back.
YME FFA President Tyler Knutson used his leadership skills to help with communication on the trip.
"I helped communicate with some of the tours and people over there," Knutson said. "Bringing 34 people (including 15 chaperones) through an airport isn't easy, so I tried to step up and help."
Knutson said he was amazed at how much agriculture is grown in Hawaii.
"I was surprised that there is that much agriculture over there," he said. "They grow pineapples, sugar cane and enough seed corn to research it."
The group got its first look at Hawaiian agriculture when it toured Maui Gold, a pineapple company.
"We saw the production from the field to the end production," said Elizabeth Halvorson, YME FFA secretary. "The pineapple grows in the ground like a sugar beet. There's a thing that comes along and cuts the tops off first and then a combine-like machine collects them."
Halvorson admitted that she didn't really care for pineapple before the trip, but quickly changed her mind in Maui.
"I tried it over there and I loved it," Halvorson said. "At Maui Gold, they gave us about four platters of pineapple and we demolished it."
The students also visited the Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Company (HC&S Co.) to learn about the sugarcane business.
"We learned how they burn the field before they take the sugar and that they sell sugar packets to Starbucks Coffee," Halvorson said. "It was interesting."
At the Monsanto Research Center, students learned how corn hybrids can be sped up in a climate like Hawaii. Hanley Falls farmers Perry Oftedahl and David Oftedahl were key in making the Hawaiian trip possible. Both are seed dealers for DEKALB, which is owned by Monsanto.
"About 10-15 years ago, it took seven to eight years to get a new product out to farmers," Refsland said. "Now it's about four years because they can shorten up the process. In Hawaii, you can get two to three generations of corn a year. There's also so much technology involved now, like gene splicing."
Other tours included a hydroponic lettuce farm, a 180-year-old schoolhouse and the largest cattle ranch on Maui, with about 4,000 head of cattle being raised on 35,000 acres.
"We learned about the climate and the economy, which is a lot harder over there," Knutson said. "It's more expensive over there because of having to ship everything out. It's a pretty big challenge for them."
Refsland explained that even though the beef cattle are raised on the island, there are no slaughterhouses allowed.
"They put the cattle on a ship that takes five days to get to California," he said. "Then they're slaughtered, boxed up and sent back. It's a different lifestyle. A gallon of milk is over $10 and a loaf of bread is over $5 because everything is imported."
Halvorson loved seeing all the different kinds of tropical flowers. She learned that Maui had three different climates.
"Half of the island would only get like 10 inches of rain a year, but on a different part of the island, they'd get between 300-400 inches," she said. "They have water wars. It's way different than what we have here."
There was also time allotted for the students to partake in a luau and just soak up the sun on the beach, which was right across from their condo. Temperatures were steady - around 80-85 degrees - every day.
"One day, we had about six tours," Halvorson said. "So everybody was pretty sunburned after that because everything was outside. But we still all went to the beach after that."
After a week, the group headed back to Minnesota - and 25 degree weather - bringing with them a priceless amount of knowledge. Refsland hopes the educational venture will encourage more students to seek out agricultural careers.
"The last 4-5 years, only 30,000 of the 50,000 available jobs are filled in the U.S.," he said. "And, agriculture, right now, is the stronger part of our economy. Ag takes off first because of food production. Then everything else follows."
The YME FFA chapter extended an invitation to host their new friends from Maui, perhaps offering them the same experience of a lifetime. Regardless, Refsland believes that the YME students were fantastic ambassadors.
"Our kids were excellent," Refsland said. "FFA teaches a lot of leadership skills. It's good to put them in a situation that requires responsibility and see them step up and come through."