USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture supports 1890 Land-grant University students, as well their institutions, in order to develop the nation’s future science and agriculture leaders. The Meats Judging Program at Fort Valley State University (FVSU) is one of many examples of how an 1890 institute is cultivating the next generation of agriculturalists.
Seven FVSU students made history as the first Meat Judging Team for the historically Black institution. This all-female team of trailblazers is a force to be reckoned with after they competed for the first time in the 2023 Spring Intercollegiate Meat Judging contest, where they took home several awards.
Hosted by the American Meat Science Association (AMSA), the competition drew more than 300 students from across the nation, from Australia and Honduras to Greeley, Colorado. The FVSU team ranked in the top 10 of Division A with a ninth-place win and placed third overall in judging.
This accomplishment is especially rewarding because the group had only two months of one-day per week virtual training sessions and two in-person meetings prior to traveling to Colorado. They also participated in an intense week of in-person training prior to the contest.
“We trained in the meat locker from early in the morning to about 10 p.m.,” said 19-year-old Nylah Simpson of Hinesville, Georgia. The animal science major placed 19th overall in judging.
All competing students judged beef, lamb and pork. The criteria involved knowing the various cuts, fat content and anatomy.
The students described the judging process as intricate and like speaking a different language.
“I want to be a large-animal veterinarian,” Simpson said. “Meat judging is a different world. I learned the inside and outside of a cow and humane ways to care for them. Everything I am doing is helping build my knowledge about the animal as a whole.”
Not only did Simpson earn a win, 18-year-old Raven McRae also placed fifth in lamb judging, and 19-year-old McKenzie McCluskey had a perfect score on the beef cut questions.
“It was a learning experience for me. We had to deal with cultural differences, but we worked hard as a group. We all came together despite the challenges and persevered,” said McRae, a freshman computer science major.
Although she has had some exposure growing up on a farm, it never occurred to the Decatur, Georgia, native that agriculture could be a career option. This experience has taught her that she can apply her knowledge and skills as a computer science major to support agriculture.
Shocked by her own perfect score, McCluskey of Cedartown, Georgia, said learning all the different parts of the animal has helped her in the classroom. The sophomore animal science major wants to be a veterinarian and work with breeding and artificial insemination.
Avience Baker, 32, of Covington, Georgia, said she not only gained a lot of knowledge but also friends. As a nontraditional student, she joined the team because she was intrigued.
“These group of ladies are very smart, and they helped me along the way,” she said.
The junior veterinary technology major plans to pursue veterinary school and is interested in doing research. She also aspires to own a farm and expose her son more to agriculture.
To know they represented FVSU as the first Black all-female team is monumental for the team.
“We are making history. This is a field that nobody expects women or Black people, in general, to be in,” Simpson said. “It’s special because we are bringing diversity to a field that I did not even know about.”
Simpson is a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) 1890 National Scholar, along with 19-year-old Chantia Fletcher.
“It can be scary being a trailblazer, but with certain opportunities like these, you learn, grow and make it possible for others to follow the same path,” declared Fletcher, who is determined to forge a path for other young women.
The freshman veterinary technology major plans to pursue veterinary school after graduation. She takes advantage of experiences like these for a broader perspective.
“Everything truly comes together whether on a small scale or a larger scale,” said the Grayson, Georgia, native. “As I think about my career, I am considering where I can fit in, where I can help and how I can use my expertise to truly make things better.”
The team thanked Terrell Hollis, meat laboratory manager of FVSU’s Meat Technology Center and assistant farm manager, and Karla Hollis, USDA liaison, for their support and believing in them.
“They never gave up on us,” Simpson said.
Both mentors are proud of the students’ achievements. The development of the team was a partnership between FVSU’s Meat Technology Center and the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service’s Livestock and Poultry Programs.
“If it had not been for their support, then USDA would not have done the coaching and brought diversity and excellence into the meat judging competition. It was one of the goals of the AMSA to bring in students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities,” Karla Hollis explained. “These young ladies stepped up. Despite the challenges they had, they still rose to the top, and I am proud of them.”
The next step is to participate in additional competitions and become junior coaches and mentors for the succeeding cohort of team members.
Fletcher emphasized the importance of having a foundation, confidence and learning to navigate unfamiliar environments that can be challenging.
“Know who you are, where you come from and what you bring to the table,” she strongly advised. “When you have more experiences like that, you master it over time and there is no stopping you.”
Top image: Fort Valley State University’s Meat Judging Team practices their judging skills in the Meat Technology Center. Photo by Latasha Ford.