MONETA — The Staunton River High School library played host to a different sort of signing last month for alumni Ethan Jackson.
Rather than committing to play on an NCAA team, Jackson, who graduated from Staunton River last spring, was committing to join Northern Oklahoma College’s livestock judging team.
Evaluating cattle, sheep and pigs based on their merits to whatever market they’re destined for has been a passion Jackson has stuck with and excelled at for the past seven years. Recently, that passion has culminated in thousands of miles of travel and plenty of opportunities to shine.
He wasn’t a stranger to farm life, having grown up on what he describes as an “Old MacDonald” farm with a cow and a few other animals. But it took off at the beginning of his seventh grade year when he decided he wanted to take his pig to 4H livestock shows and see how it weighed in.
He continued with livestock showing and judging through 4H during middle school and into high school, where he said his experience helped springboard him into Future Farmers of America (FFA).
Scott Baker, the Virginia Cooperative Extension agricultural agent in Bedford County, said he’s seen Jackson grow and his livestock judging skills develop since first mentoring him as a middle schooler.
“A lot of it is just in discipline, in practice, in commitment to studying the animals,” he said. “So, really, what it comes down to is somebody has got to be committed to the work to learn what is involved in judging.”
That discipline and those leadership skills have helped take Jackson to the top, Baker said.
By his junior year, Jackson was boasting a win at the Virginia FFA judging contest and no longer could compete by FFA rules because he won. He competed in a contest at the North American International Livestock Expo in Louisville, Kentucky, and placed second in the nation with his team by one point.
Visits from state FFA officers in high school were an inspiration for Jackson and encouraged him to run for president of the association. The levels of personal connection and patience a former FFA president used during one of those visits two years ago made him want to continue that kind of advocacy for other teens involved in agricultural organizations.
“Just that experience in and of itself really kind of motivated me and encouraged me to continue with FFA,” he said.
Jackson, 18, was elected to serve as Virginia FFA president last June, a role that tasked him with traveling around the state to host workshops for middle and high school students. He said the leadership role is an exercise in networking, public speaking, critical thinking and problem solving that funnels into being a standout livestock judge.
The past year after graduation has been “pretty hectic” for him, balancing personal work with FFA responsibilities and traveling — at one point all the way to South Africa for the two-week FFA International Leadership Seminar for State Officers. That combination of personal and FFA work kept him occupied in the year between graduating high school and moving on to Northern Oklahoma.
His yearlong tenure ended June 20. That night, he flew to Scotland for the Royal Highlands Show, where he and other Virginia teammates were set to judge cattle and sheep.
“We’re going to see some crazy looking animals and going to have a lot of fun while we’re doing it,” he said prior to the trip.
Once he returns from the judging (and a little bit of tourism) July 3, it’ll be a little more than a month before he’s off to Northern Oklahoma to start training.
Tim Hubbard, the judging coach at Northern Oklahoma, which is a junior college, said the program will keep Jackson and his teammates busy through the season’s end in March.
“I think he’s in for a lot of work, I can tell you that much,” he said. “He’s going to work a lot harder than most freshman and sophomores through his junior college career. He won’t have near as much free time and he will be devoting his time to something, I think, a little more unique and certainly more rewarding.”
Jackson and his cohort will practice judging three times per week, including Saturdays, and their class schedule is built around those practices. Leading up to the bigger contests that require them to travel, Hubbard said they’ll visit ranchers, shepherds or hogmen to judge their livestock for about a week of what can be 12-hour days.
“Those students, they have a lot of pride and it’s a lot of accomplishment,” Hubbard said.
After two years pursuing a degree in animal science at Northern Oklahoma, Jackson said he’d like to transition to a four-year university and continue livestock judging. The program is an ideal networking opportunity to meet professors and industry professionals, Jackson said, which could open doors to a career or an internship.
Between his education and judging experience, Jackson said there will be a lot of opportunities available to him in the world of agriculture. He said he could see himself being a herd manager at a cattle farm, working for a siring company or keeping chicken houses.
Despite being unsure of what to expect in Oklahoma, Jackson said he’s eager to dive into his academics and judging there. Hubbard, who happened to be close enough to visit Jackson’s signing in Moneta last month, said Jackson has what it takes to stand out in the “gentlemen’s contest” of livestock judging.
“Ethan, to me, is extremely polished. He’s extremely well-groomed; he looks like a kid that I want to respect and he’s really approachable,” Hubbard said. “He demands a lot of attention yet he’s easy to like and get along with.”
Rachel Mahoney writes for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5554.