FRESNO -- It's all about dedication, a strong work ethic and a heavy dose of enthusiasm.
This formula helped Tokay High School senior Shiana Mackenzie become the top individual winner in the vine judging contest at the state Future Farmers of America convention held here last weekend.
This same combination helped Will Smith, a senior at Lodi High School, win first place in the farm records competition.
"I've been preparing the whole semester and doing this for the past four years," said Smith, who found the state competition to be not as difficult as he feared.
Mackenzie was more impressed with the competitive atmosphere at the convention, which has drawn about 4,500 FFA members to Fresno.
"This is a really big thing," said Mackenzie, a member of FFA for four years. "A lot of people don't how influential it is."
Mackenzie's performance helped the Tokay High School chapter win first place in the team competition for vine judging.
Meanwhile, Tokay High freshman Christine Aftias won fourth place ribbon in a subcategory of the floriculture competition.
Besides Smith's first-place award, a Lodi High School team won fourth in the "best informed green hand" category, a knowledge-based test aimed at beginning FFA competitors. Another Lodi High team was fifth in the farm business management competition.
Lodi High senior Tristan Gibbs took third in the horse judging competition.
The winning four-member vine judging team from Tokay High School had 20 minutes to look over four vines and decide individually which was the best based on vigor, health, pruning, framework and fruitfulness.
One of the members, Arthur Faria, 16, said that he believes Tokay's success can be attributed to practice, hard work, and good coaching.
Joining Mackenzie and Faria on the team were Gary Valente and Ashley Halligan
Some of the Tokay students' parents have worked with them for the past three years.
Since January, the group has met four times a week for an hour or two and even on the weekends to prepare for the competition.
"This is like a sport for them," said Tokay High School advisor Matthew Bronson, who started teaching at Tokay High School in the fall. "They practice close to every day."
Faria, who had never been to a convention before, was glad he made the trip to Fresno.
"I didn't know it would be this big," Faria said. "There were fireworks and a laser show. It was crazy."
Faria praised Bronson, the chapter's newest advisor.
"He's got us started on a lot of new things and this is the most people we've ever brought to a convention," said Faria. Last year only four students participated in the convention in Fresno.
FFA also has a healthy presence at Lodi High.
"FFA is the biggest club on campus," said Lodi advisor Brent Newport. "It is important because it helps students to succeed in not only a school setting, but also life."
Brie Witt, a senior at Lodi High School who won second place in the beef product placement interview, said that FFA helps students polish their public speaking skills.
"I had fun going through the interview. I didn't even realize how prepared I was until I started," Witt said. "I wasn't nervous talking about what I grew up around. As soon as I was done I felt confident."
She was one of the 29 Lodi High School students who attended the convention.
Witt, who grew up and works on a beef feed lot, said that she was able to take advantage of all her acquired knowledge and life experiences, which played a key role in her success at the convention.
Another important element was the guidance and coaching from Lodi High School advisors. "Without them I wouldn't be here," Witt said.
Smith said that Newport, a chapter advisor for 10 years, points students in the right direction. "He knows what we need to focus on," Smith said.
Witt also said that there are so many opportunities in the FFA. "You can receive scholarships, visit colleges, and there are so many career opportunities in agriculture," Witt said.
"FFA opened my eyes to that and it's great to meet people with similar interests and hear how they got here."