Several thousand high school students and teachers are expected to converge on Stephenville today as Tarleton State University hosts its annual FFA Invitational Judging Contests.

School buses and vans, loaded with agricultural education students from across the state, will meet at the college farm’s main pavilion before dispersing to various locations around Stephenville, including the TSU Agriculture and Horticulture Centers, Wisdom Gym, Hunewell Ranch and Lone Star Arena.

Dr. Ted Ford, associate professor with Tarleton’s Department of Ag Services & Development, is helping to organize the one-day event that includes various judging contests for FFA members.

“We have about 5,400 students entered for this year’s Invitational,” said Ford. “Usually, we don’t get 100 percent of them to show up, but we’re likely to have more than 4,000 show up.”

The TSU professor says 350 high schools from across Texas will be represented and accompanied by 520 ag science instructors.

According to Ford, Tarleton has hosted the annual event for approximately 35 years. “I think we started in 1973 and skipped one year due to an ice storm. CDE is the new name for judging contests that FFA has. It’s supposedly more compatible with educational (ag science) curriculums.”

This year’s CDE contests include Livestock, Poultry, Horse and Meats judging, as well as Dairy Cattle and Dairy Foods, Landscape Design, Land and Range, Farm Business Management, Entomology and Wildlife & Recreation Management.

To help coordinate the event, Ford says the College of Agriculture & Human Sciences has pulled together a large team of faculty and students. “It’s pretty much an all-hands-on-board event. Faculty have assignments and they recruit about 400 (Tarleton) ag students to help out. All of our graduate students and faculty have various assignments, so we’ll be busy all day. It’s a big undertaking for us.”

While many high schools from the immediate area will travel to Stephenville and return home today, some FFA students and teachers opted to stay overnight at local hotels, Ford said. “They stay as close as they can. The vast majority are coming from 300 to 400 miles away.”

Local restaurants are also expected to be busier than normal, as the thousands of FFA contest participants will undoubtedly make lines a little longer during today’s lunch-hour rush.

Judging is expected to begin at 8:30 a.m. and conclude by 1 p.m. An awards ceremony will also be held at Wisdom Gym where results will be announced and several scholarships presented.

“The university is very supportive of this event,” said Ford. “The College of Agriculture also funds several scholarships, including a $1,000 scholarship to the sweepstakes winner.”

Invitational CDE scholarships of $500, good for the fall 2008 semester at TSU, will be awarded to the best performing school in each of the 12 events, said Ford. The school with the most individual award winners will be the sweepstakes winner and awarded the $1,000 Tarleton Agricultural Scholarship, good for the 2008-09 school year.

“We are very fortunate that we are able to provide scholarships,” said Ford. “This is the third year we’ve offered those. We created an endowment fund to support those ($500 scholarships) through proceeds from the judging contest entry fees. Over the 35 years we’ve been able to put back some monies into the endowment.”

Ford says FFA students will return to Stephenville again next Wednesday, April 2, when the Texas FFA Area CDEs will be hosted by Tarleton.

More than 2,500 high school students will be back in town for similar judging events, hoping to advance to the Texas FFA State contests.

While the population of Stephenville will grow by several thousand today, and again next Wednesday, Ford says it’s a great way to promote Tarleton and the community to so many high school students. “We’re gonna survive. We’ve done it for so long that it kinda runs on auto pilot.”