By STEVE BINDER
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — Two of the 2012 FFA American Star Farmer finalists hail from Illinois and Indiana, and both are keenly interested in scientific aspects of the ag industry.
Clayton Carley’s interest definitely has a bit of a “sweet” touch, while Kayliegh Warner eventually took on a “Colombo” type of role. Both won over the judges and are in line to become American State Farmers this year – an announcement scheduled to be made during the 85th National FFA Convention & Expo in Indianapolis Oct. 24-27.
“I continue to be amazed each year at the caliber of the finalists,” said Kristy Meyer, head of communications for the National FFA Organization. “They are dedicated, they are passionate and they are the reason why the state of the agriculture industry is in excellent hands. And we are proud to play a part in growing our future leaders.”
Raised in the small town of Milford in eastern Illinois, Carley convinced his parents when he was in the eighth grade to plow part of the yard to start growing sweet corn.
“We literally ripped up part of the front yard to start the Sweet Corn Shack, and through the years I was able to save up enough money to buy my first car,” said Carley, 20, now a sophomore at the University of Illinois-Champaign. “Between the sweet corn money that I’ve raised and scholarships, I hope to have paid for college and not have any debt when I graduate.”
That yard space equaled about three-tenths of an acre when Carley started growing sweet corn, and it quickly expanded to the nearly seven acres he manages now each year in large part because he was growing a popular product and providing buyers with good service.
“My focus always has been on my customers, and giving them excellent service. If they’re not satisfied with the product, they get a full refund. We put 13 or 14 ears in each bag,” Carley said.
He credits his “strong relationship with Christ,” an input system for his farm that he trusts and his focus on customer service as the three key reasons for his early success. He is one of the four finalists for the American Star Farmer award.
He uses a fertilizer system designed for high yields and lower costs from DeWitt, Iowa-based Ag Spectrum, a system he said allows for nitrogen and insecticides to be applied all at the same time.
“It allows me to set myself up right from the start with the best opportunity to produce the best crop I can, and it has worked well,” Carley said.
He now also farms about 400 acres of corn and soybeans, using best management practices and daily checks on the grain.
Carley is pursuing a double major at the U of I in agronomy and advanced education, and his immediate goal is to help improve food crop genetics. He’s interested in an idea similar to Doctors Without Borders, only he calls it Agronomists Without Borders.
“We’re the leading education model worldwide right here in the U.S., and I would appreciate the opportunity to help in terms of genetics anywhere in the world,” Carley said.
Eventually, he wants to become an ag teacher and he credits FFA with helping him develop the discipline and leadership skills to help him reach his goals. Carley most recently served as the Illinois FFA state treasurer. He was a member of the Cissna Park FFA.
One of the four finalists for the American Star in Agriscience award, Warner was a member of the DeKalb Central FFA chapter near her hometown of Waterloo, Ind. Her love of agriculture began with her grandfather’s farm, where she completed her first FFA project that focused on the management of fence lines, ditch banks and, her favorite, a stand of walnut trees.
“I really loved those trees,” said Warner, a 20-year-old sophomore at Purdue University. “And I absolutely loved being in the FFA. I built some of my best friendships through the organization and learned so much.”
She captured the attention of FFA judges a few years later when she embarked on a four-year project that helped solve a perplexing problem within her community. Combining biotechnology and field research, Warner began studying the byproduct of metal casting at a nearby foundry, Metal Technologies, Inc.
The foundry sand “would escape from the plant’s ducts and get into gardens and a lot of things around the area,” she explained.
The local health board already had received numerous complaints that the foundry sand, which also was being used as a compost additive, was carcinogenic and therefore a risk to community members. Warner teamed with Trine University and had the cooperation of the foundry to begin the four-year research project.
During the first three years, the sand was coupled with clay soil.
“I thought it was a perfect idea to pursue because there were a lot of complaints about the sand, but no one had actually studied its properties,” said Warner, who is seeking a pre-pharmacy degree and wants to return home to the Fort Wayne area when she graduates.
Her study plots of sunflowers, soybeans and potted tomatoes over three years showed a surprising result: The foundry sand mixed in the soil provided anywhere from an 8-15 percent increase in yields in all three products. Chemical analysis throughout the process also showed there were no contaminates in any of the crops.
Based on Warner’s research, the plant now uses about 10 percent of its foundry sand as a regular mulch mixture, and it is sold to the public.
“It was just amazing how all of the research came together. There are times I can’t believe it evolved the way it did,” said Warner, who is also pursuing a minor in food science at Purdue.