Dean Merrell’s legacy provides local Future Farmers of America a hometown start

PINAL COUNTY, Ariz. – On Friday, Feb. 5, the legacy of one of Central Arizona College’s most electric characters and beloved professors will be rekindled when hundreds of high school students descend on the Signal Peak Campus for the 14th Annual South Central Dean Merrell Future Farmers of America Field Day.

But the term 14th is a great misnomer – the event has been hosted by CAC for nearly four decades. It was only after Dean Merrell passed away at the far too young age of 53 in 1996 did his name emblazon an event that has become synonymous with farming in Pinal County and the greater south central Arizona region.

“He was just one of those people that everyone should have had an opportunity to know,” Karen Geldmacher, CAC’s professor of agricultural science who coordinates the FFA Field Day, said. Even after more than a decade, the pain of the loss winces in her eyes. “He was just a great guy.”

Merrell was the founding father of agricultural education at Central Arizona College and the visionary that used CAC’s community profile to create a signature competition for area high school students.

“He was instrumental in bringing a district field day to Pinal County,” Pat Harrington, CAC’s technology division chair and professor of farm business management, explained. “Because of him, students in the south central region have their own field day. Without him, it may never have happened.”

Born in Safford, Ariz., in the early 1940s, Merrell’s career included earning Vocational Teacher of the Year in Arizona, a NISOD Award at Central Arizona College, and an honor from the Arizona Cotton Growers Association.

Merrell practiced what he preached - farming - which he did for two decades. He also was a pest control adviser, owner and operator of Hacienda Ag Labs, and served as president of the Farm Bureau, the Pinal County Fair Board and the Vocational Agriculture Teachers Association. He was an adviser of the CAC Rodeo Club and an academic adviser and livestock committee chairman.

A lifetime member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Merrell served in many positions including bishop, high councilman, youth leader and stake missionary. He also served a two-year, full-time mission.

But his biggest impact for farming and high school students undoubtedly was his ability to spawn the field day at Central Arizona College.

Each year, CAC’s Dean Merrell FFA Field Day brings together students from the south central Arizona region to compete in events such as Agricultural Issues, Agricultural Mechanics, Agronomy, Dairy Management, Entomology, Horse Evaluation, Job Interview, Livestock Evaluation, Meats Evaluation, Nursery Operations, Range Management, Soil and Wildlife Management.

Last year, the Agronomy category was captured by Coolidge High School students Sarahbeth Bourland, Jessica Bowles, Jacob Brown and Cheyenne Williams, while first place in the Soil competition went to Casa Grande Unified High School students Colton Martinez, John Wilson and Haily Wood.

On Nov. 24, 2009, CAC hosted a small FFA event for high school freshmen that featured approximately 80 students getting a tasted of what happens at the big dance. Students participated in three events - FFA Creed, FFA Information, and Novice Public Speaking.

The following students took the top honors:

FFA Creed:

1st - Delanie Costello (Amphitheater)

2nd-  Rhianna Carranza (Amphitheater)

3rd - Brianna Camacho (Amphitheater)

4th - Ilse Ruiz (Desert View)


FFA Information:

1st - Joi Nipales (Baboquivari)

2nd - Francisco Manuel (Baboquivari)

3rd - Mai Ho - Flowing Wells


Novice Prepared Public Speaking:

1st - Alexandra Mc Nair (Flowing Wells)

2nd - Mystery Stephens (Flowing Wells)

The National Future Farmers of America is a dynamic youth organization that changes lives and prepares students for premier leadership, personal growth and career success through agricultural education.

The FFA was founded in 1928 to provide leadership training for high school students of vocational agriculture. The 33 young farm boys who congregated in Kansas City’s Baltimore Hotel that year could not have predicted how the organization they started would become a leader in agricultural education nationwide.

In 1950, the 81st Congress of the United States, recognizing the importance of the FFA as an integral part of the program of vocational agriculture, granted a Federal Charter to the FFA. Today, the FFA uses agricultural education to prepare students for more than 300 careers in the science, business and technology of agriculture.

Today, the FFA boasts more than 500,000 members in nearly 7,500 local chapters. The iconic blue corduroy jacket proudly worn by FFA members embodies years of history, tradition and excellence in agricultural education.

No doubt if he were here, Merrell would be donned in blue on Feb. 5.

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