Senior agricultural education student Austin La Salle earned media notoriety last year as a campus farm student worker who helped raise one of the farm’s prized products, Fresno State sweet corn.
That experience helped yield bigger dividends recently as the Firebaugh native won the California Young Farmers and Ranchers Discussion Meet held Feb. 29 at the California Farm Bureau Federation’s annual meeting in Visalia.
“Getting the chance to meet farm market customers and talk about conventional and organic produce and GMOs was an important experience,” La Salle said. “It also helped prepare me for one of our contest topics, which was about consumer preferences and modern production methods. I had conversations with people from all walks of life and discussed how farmers are committed to producing quality, ready-to-eat products.”
La Salle and three teammates prepared for the event by conducting individual research on five preselected competition topics. The group also met periodically with animal sciences and agricultural education professor Dr. Steven Rocca, and two former state champions and Fresno State students, senior Samuel Looper (of Apple Valley) and graduate student Tim Truax (of Turlock).
Their hard work paid off as three team members advanced to the final round, including agricultural education junior Jasmine Flores (Atwater) and mechanical engineering junior Andrew Skidmore (Atwater). The team also included agricultural education senior Clayton Sheehan (Madera).
Their efforts helped Fresno State win the team title for the third straight year and beat teams from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo and Modesto Junior College.
La Salle won a $1,250 prize; Flores earned $750 as runner-up; and Skidmore received $500 as a finalist. The team also received a $250 prize.
The single-day contest featured 15 competitors that discussed industry issues in randomized groups of five entries in two, half-hour opening rounds. The top contestants advanced to an eight-person semifinal where the top two scorers in each section advanced to the four-person final round. Competitors were judged on their ability to encourage active and positive group discussion, suggest solutions and reach a consensus.
La Salle also tapped prior experience for the final round topic that centered on ways that rural communities can combat opioid dependence and mental health issues.
“That issue was important to me, since I’ve had family members and family friends struggle with both,” La Salle said. “I suggested creating more partnerships and conversations through local government, churches and other organizations like the Lion’s Club and Rotary Club.”
Another contest topic encouraged him to find ways that new meat and dairy product alternatives could co-exist in the marketplace with more traditional products.
La Salle, who has worked his whole life on a 700-head family dairy farm, knows the implications personally. His research, however, found a solution in the Middle East, and an untapped and growing market of middle class consumers potentially looking for meat and dairy products. Likewise, he saw potential for new cellular, plant-based products to better utilize materials from the American agricultural supply chain.
Other discussion topics ranged from developing new markets for agricultural products and byproducts, and creating new labor strategies to offset government limits on guest workers.
Looking ahead, La Salle will become the eighth Fresno State student to represent California in the winter of 2021 at the American Farm Bureau Federation national collegiate competition since Rocca began coaching the team in 2006.
Looper, last year’s state champion, will compete at the national competition in two weeks in Louisville, Kentucky.
Truax competed at the same national event in 2018 and is one of three national champions from Fresno State with Tino Rossi and Levy Randolph who won national titles in 2012 and 2015, respectively.
Other past state champions from Fresno State include Abigail Carlson (2017), Hunter Berry (2016), Levy Randolph (2014), Jake Carlson (2013), Tino Rossi (2011), Jackie Mundt (2008) and Molly Fagundes (2003).
The team has won eight state team titles under Rocca with others coming in 2019, 2018, 2016, 2014, 2013, 2008 and 2006.
“This event is really rewarding since you get to work with a lot of interesting people,” La Salle said. “Surprisingly, it wasn’t that stressful because ultimately you’re focused on issues that we all care about and listening how others also want to come together to make a difference.”