Hermiston High School senior Allie Hobson judges cuts of meat at a practice session Saturday evening. Her four-member team and 11 other students in their Future Farmers of America group, flew to Indianapolis for the national convention early Sunday morning.

The qualities a home cook looks for in a piece of meat — color, fat content and sell-by date — are child’s play to the Hermiston High School FFA meat judging team. They can look at a slab of meat and tell you the species, the “primal” (first) cut, the retail cut and how it would rate under the U.S. Department of Agriculture‘s 12 quality grades.

Give the meat judger a dressed and skinned farm animal and he or she can, with a formula involving tenths of inches of fat and square inches of meat, estimate the percentage of retail meat on a carcass.

While other FFA activities involve public speaking or entrepreneurship, meat judging is, well, cut and dried.

“What you see is what you get,” said Allie Hobson, 18, who won second place at the state FFA convention in May.  “There’s no talking your way out of it.”

The meat judging program has grown into the star of Hermiston High School’s FFA club. It swept the state convention with two five-member teams, one beginner and one advanced. Not only did they win the top place overall, all five of the advanced team members placed in the top seven and two from the beginning team made it into the top 10. 

This year is the fourth that Hermiston is sending meat judgers to the national FFA convention. Coach Raymon Smith, superintendent of the Echo School District, said kids who enjoy math and maybe shy away from other FFA competitions can find a home in meat judging.

“It gives everyone a chance to excel,” he said. “And once you have a group that finds success, it just kind of builds on itself.”

The four-member team — Hobson, Michael Wallace, Patrick Linnell and Daniel Horn — placed the highest at state. To prepare for the national convention, they spent hours in the chilled meat lockers and processing rooms of Eastern Oregon Mobile Slaughter and Follet Meat Company. 

“Raymon pushes us. And we push ourselves,” said Wallace, who placed fourth at state.

At the national convention, the team will do more than simply judge and grade meat. In one event, they’ll determine a least-cost formulation for a USDA-approved 5,000-pound batch of ground beef from a simple list of ingredients. Like at the state contest, they will compete individually; judges will pool their points for a team score.

Of course, the meat judgers aren’t the only FFA students to take in Indianapolis and its environs this year. Fifteen Hermiston students, leaders in the FFA club or diligent members, also will attend. The convention is a four-day extravaganza packed with workshops, expert speakers and a career show that could fill six football fields.

Eight Pendleton High School students will be there, along with 2009 PHS graduate Jessi Henshaw. Henshaw will receive the highest FFA honor, the American Degree.

A tour of the Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital in Louisville, Ky., will kick off the Pendleton group’s tour. They’ll observe surgery and rehab facilities, then head to the legendary Churchill Downs racetrack, home of the Kentucky Derby.

“The trip is truly a life-changing event for many students and teachers,” said Pendleton FFA Advisor Marty Campbell. “It’s always exciting to see what the best kids in the nation have to offer and see how some our our students are getting closer to that level.”

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