A trip to Jamaica gave George Frees the inspiration to study a plant not commonly found in his native Missouri: sugarcane.
“I was doing a marine biology camp there and was able to speak to some local sugarcane growers,” Frees said. “It immediately fascinated me that you could grow this 9-, 10-, sometimes even 15-foot-tall plant.”
When Frees started an agriscience supervised agricultural experience (SAE) as a member of Cass Career Center FFA in Missouri, he decided to pair sugarcane cultivation with another interest.
“Something that’s always been very important to me is environmentalism and proper stewardship of the environment,” Frees said. “So, it just became a very natural thing to me to combine my interest in sugarcane and my interest in the production of renewable fuels.”
Specifically, Frees studied how treating sugarcane with gibberellic acid — a growth hormone sometimes applied to citrus fruits to promote cold tolerance — increases the amount of ethanol biofuel that can be produced from the plant.
“The main issue is sugarcane is simply not a largely popularized crop in the United States. There’s a somewhat limited growing zone,” Frees said. “But from the standpoint of ethanol production, sugarcane is far superior in labor intensity and cost (compared to corn).”
Frees has continued to act on his passion for crop science. He’s currently double majoring in biochemistry and plant sciences at the University of Missouri, where he’s the campus beekeeper and puts in hours in four different labs.
“I plan to pursue an M.D./Ph.D. program and work in the field called ethnobotany, which is looking at how native peoples around the world use medicinal plants and then developing new pharmaceuticals based off of that.”
Frees credits FFA as the organization that’s had the “single largest impact” on the trajectory of his life. In addition to his SAE, Frees participated in the Washington Leadership Conference and served as chapter vice president and parliamentarian.
“I firmly believe that without FFA, I would not have gotten the scholarship that I now hold and had all the opportunities for research that I take part in right now.”
About the American Star Awards
Each year at the National FFA Convention & Expo, four FFA members are honored with American Star Awards for outstanding accomplishments in FFA and agricultural education.
The American Star Awards, including American Star Farmer, American Star in Agribusiness, American Star in Agricultural Placement and American Star in Agriscience, are presented to FFA members who demonstrate outstanding agricultural skills and competencies through completion of an SAE. A required activity in FFA, an SAE allows students to learn by doing, by either owning or operating an agricultural business, working or serving an internship at an agriculture-based business, or conducting an agriculture-based scientific experiment and reporting results.
Other requirements to achieve the award include demonstrating top management skills; completing key agricultural education, scholastic and leadership requirements; and earning an American FFA Degree, the organization’s highest level of student accomplishment.
Sixteen American Star Award finalists from throughout the U.S. were nominated by a panel of judges who then interviewed the finalists this fall. Four were named winners during the 96th National FFA Convention & Expo this year, which was held in Indianapolis. Winners received cash awards. Cargill, Case IH, Elanco Animal Health and Syngenta sponsor the awards.
The National FFA Organization is a school-based national youth leadership development organization of more than 945,000 student members as part of 9,163 local FFA chapters in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.