Managers in the wood products industry should prioritize hiring graduates who hold the advanced forestry credential certified by the Louisiana Forestry Association. But, how many managers even know that the LFA acts as a certifying agency for a statewide forestry credential?
Allow me to introduce you to Louisiana’s best kept secret.
Let’s start at the beginning. In the fall of 1978, the first Louisiana FFA forestry contest was hosted by Louisiana Tech; there were about 40 students who participated in that standalone state contest. Legendary agriculture teacher and regional FFA supervisor Russell Sullivan (from Winnfield) is credited with creating the contest which consisted of tree identification, timber cruising, compass reading/pacing and timber stand improvement (TSI). These early forestry contests were held as a way for young people to meet like-minded rural youth and get introduced to a career opportunity.
Over the course of 43 years the forestry contest has evolved into an industry-based assessment that is considered workforce training. Today’s contest has the traditional practicums of tree ID and mensuration, but it dives deeper into silviculture practices by way of practicums in tree disorders, conservation standards and topographic map reading. To say the event has grown is an understatement. In 2019, more than 750 students from all corners of Louisiana participated in Louisiana FFA forestry contests.
Louisiana FFA forestry contests begin in early September and culminate with the state championship in mid-October. Most FFA forestry students start practice before school starts in August and the top teams spend an average of 150 hours after school each fall in practice.
One cannot effectively learn to cruise timber, pace or identify trees inside a classroom. So, they travel to the woods with their Ag teacher. Most campuses do not have a forest so all serious forestry teams practice after school in the glorious autumn heat and humidity that Louisiana has to offer. The students who excel in that environment are the ones who love working, love the woods, and love to learn. The work ethic these students have is extraordinary and should be taken into consideration by anyone hiring for manufacturing environments.
In today’s contest, learning is more important than winning. They are not even called contests anymore; they are called Career Development Events or CDE’s. Currently, Louisiana FFA forestry CDE participants who score at least 70% proficient qualify to become candidates for the advanced forestry credential examination. This is not a participation trophy; only 3 out of 10 kids score high enough to qualify.
It takes 2 more steps to earn the advanced credential. These two steps are passing a woods based practicum called the Louisiana Examination of Advanced Forestry (L.E.A.F.) and a 100 question Agricultural Technology Exam offered by the Louisiana Farm Bureau. LEAF exams are administered and monitored by forestry professionals, forestry extension agents, and forestry professors. LEAF exams contain practicums pertaining to the BMP manual, manufacturing, business scenarios, forestry math, forest products, wildlife conservation and GPS. The exam takes a day to setup and 2 hours for individual students to complete. The Agricultural Technology Exam from the Louisiana Farm Bureau can only be taken after 3 years of agriculture classes and the exam covers all aspects of Louisiana’s Agriculture 1-3 curriculum. This curriculum includes animal, plant, soil science, safety, leadership and mechanics.
Advanced level credentials are extremely difficult to implement as they must gain approval by the Industry Based Certification Council (IBCC) and the Workforce Investment Council (WIC) down in Baton Rouge. These two committees through a rigorous vetting process require the certifying agency to prove high/wage and high/demand skills are achieved by holders of the certificate. They also must prove that certificate holders will enter the workforce with a skillset that sets them apart from un-certified graduates.
Therefore, if you are hiring for an entry level position and someone presents to you that they earned the LEAF credential, ask them to produce the certificate. It should contain the LFA logo, the FFA logo and Buck Vandersteen’s signature. If by chance they do not have the certificate anymore you can verify their credential with a phone call to the LFA office where the main database is saved.
Finally, when a potential hire presents to you that they earned the LFA advanced forestry credential, he/she is presenting you proof of an elite career in the agriculture classroom and a significant depth of knowledge in the forestry industry. When you look at them from across the interview table know that you are looking at a kid that people say does not exist anymore. You’re looking at a kid that is well rounded, hard-working, intelligent and respectful; a kid that we need to keep in Louisiana; a kid that deserves a chance.
(Dr. Eric Smith is executive director of Agricultural Education for the Louisiana FFA Association.)