COOLIDGE — Oliver Sheridan is in the eighth grade. While he may be one of the youngest students enrolled in Coolidge High and Junior High School FFA program, that has not deterred him from taking on some big projects.
Oliver is responsible for overseeing the program’s greenhouse and aquaculture system as his Supervised Agricultural Experience this school year.
The overall system houses tilapia and grows a series of plants including cherry tomatoes.
Looking after the system, however, is just a small part of a much larger passion.
At the age of just 13, he has already participated in the Arizona Trout Challenge, a program sponsored by the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
“Most people think that Arizona is just a desert, but trout need to come from cool water,” he said. “Most of the trout water is snowmelt, so they do have trout in different parts of Arizona.”
To complete the challenge, participants must catch all four species of wild trout or catch at least six of the eight species, including hatchery trout, in Arizona.
He is also hoping to earn the title of “Expert Caster” by completing the Western Native Trout Challenge, which operates across 12 states. To be considered an expert caster, Oliver must catch at least six species of trout across four states.
If he manages to catch all six species, Oliver would join his father among the list of those who have completed the challenge. He would also be the only person under the age of 18 to successfully do it.
But Oliver is not the only FFA member whose passion for agriculture is keeping some of his older classmates on their toes.
Abigail and Ana Rivera are both ninth graders who have been participating in the FFA program since last year. Abigail is currently working on lamb, swine and goat production for her SAE.
But this is far from her first time raising animals for show. Her family has a long history in agriculture, and many of her siblings and even her mother participated in the FFA program while attending high school.
Her sister Ana is also working on a breeding program for lambs. The two girls have shown animals approximately six years, with Abigail recalling showing her first lamb at age 8.
Because the pair come from a family that is well known in the region for raising and showing sheep, Abigail noted that people often assume that both she and her sister are used to earning the best awards for their animals. But the truth is that earning some of the bigger titles is something that is fairly new to both Abigail and Ana — and has required plenty of practice and dedication.
“It took us six years to get a Grand (Champion title) to take home,” Ana said. “We’ve got showmanship (before) but we strive for that big title.”
Getting to that point has involved plenty of hard work, with both girls estimating that they spend hours after school working with their animals leading up to showing events.
“No one knows how much time that you put into this stuff,” Abigail said. “They might just see the wins that you took or the losses that you took. They don’t see what’s not in front of them.”
Their enthusiasm for working with the FFA program extends far beyond showing animals, however. The two sisters also participated in the FFA Information Contest held at Arizona State University Polytechnic campus in December, where students in seventh, eighth and ninth grade showcase their FFA-related knowledge.
According to FFA adviser Elizabeth Skornik, the pair were the only eighth graders to make it into the competition at the state level.
“It was a pretty stinking big deal,” Skornik said.
As part of a group of four FFA members from CHS and CJHS, they also attended a livestock evaluation clinic held in Oklahoma this past summer. Skornik recalls that students spent the entirety of the trip practicing their oral reasons — even in their spare time.
“They were working the whole time,” she said. “I never had to tell them to get off their phones or pay attention. I’ve never seen a group of kids work harder at something.”
As some of the youngest kids in the program, Oliver, Abigail and Ana have also already accrued over 2,000 leadership points. The points are given to students for their participation in various events and projects within the program.
“The case with these guys is that they’re going to be successful no matter what they do,” Skornik said. “We’re just lucky that this is what they want to do and this is what they want to be successful in.”
But while the students may be leading the pack when it comes to the amount of effort they put into the program, for Skornik, one of their most impressive qualities is that they are never boastful and always willing to help classmates.
“I love to help (other) kids with their projects,” Abigail said. By helping other students, she hopes that they will be encouraged to put their all into their projects as well.
And the attitude that all three students bring to the program may just be what motivates other students to raise the bar as well, Skornik noted.
“They push everybody to do better,” she said. “As younger kids, they really elevate the program.”