The imaginative and investigative skills of South Dakota's top Future Farmers of America students were on display recently at the state's Agriscience Fair.

Those projects ranged from looking at which animal bedding materials were most absorbent, to whether higher-priced rabbit feed could enhance their health, to controlling raccoon populations and the effects of alternative fertilizers on plant growth.

If it can be researched and is involved with agriculture, it's fair game.

"We encourage students to find a problem and see if they can find a solution to address it," said South Dakota FFA Executive Secretary Beth Mayrose.

The event, held April 17 at the Nordby Trades Center at Mitchell Technical Institute, included 125 projects from 17 schools in six divisions ranging from grades 7 to 12. The top projects in each division are eligible to advance to the National FFA Agriscience Fair. There are also separate divisions for two-person team projects, as well.

Teryn Sparling, a ninth grader at Northwestern High School located in Mellette, was presenting at the fair for a second time. Her presentation was looking at the effects of UV radiation on a planaria, which is a type of free-living flatworm. She examined the effects through cultural and DNA analysis, something she said would like to consider as a career.

"Thinking about a profession, I've thought about wanting to extract DNA for a career, so this was a natural fit," she said. "Looking at cells and seeing if they're damaged, looking for cancer; that's something I'd love to do."

Prior to the FFA members presenting at MTI, they had to deliver a written report on their project, which provided in-depth information on how the studying and scientific analysis were done. That report comprises most of the score for the fair, Mayrose said.

"We're giving them an opportunity to get in front of a judge and share a little bit more about their project and to really share what made them want to take a look at the topic they worked on," Mayrose said.

Andrew Rick, a ninth-grade student from West Central High School in Hartford, was presenting on the feeding preferences of raccoons. He set a food trap in his backyard and used the trial and error method of checking when it was tripped. Rick is a trapper in his free time, he said, meaning he had a personal interest in seeing the results of the test play out.

"I kind of wanted to try it based on the new trapping program that the state has," he said. "I like to do this in my free time anyway."

The schools arrived from as far away as Belle Fourche, Milbank and Wall, and as close as Kimball, Montrose and Parkston. Tracy Chase, who teaches science at McCook Central High School and is an FFA area agriscience liaison, said the event has continued to grow, increasing the number of participants.

"We have about 15 to 20 more exhibits than we had last year, so we've got more students who are giving this a chance," she said. "It's really a great opportunity for students to really dive into a project and see what they can find."

The top finishers in the state are eligible to advance to the national competition, but a group of judges picks the top-12 to reach that stage, meaning the competition only gets tougher after the state event.

"It's exciting because the students who are here are showing they have analyzation skills, problem-solving skills, research and development and that's what we're really excited about," Mayrose said. "FFA is intended to prepare career-ready students, so these students are doing things that are going to set themselves apart in the workforce and we're glad they can start doing that here."

Students made presentations in the following categories:

• Animal systems, which includes examining life processes, health, nutrition, genetics, management and processing in small animals, aquaculture, livestock, dairy, horses and poultry.

• Food products and processing systems, which studies product development, food safety, quality assurance, production, sales and service.

• Power, structural and technical systems, which studies ag equipment, power systems, alternative fuel sources and precision technology, as well as woodworking, metalworking, welding and planning for ag buildings.

• Social science, which includes studying human behavior in agricultural education, agribusiness economics, agricultural communications, leadership and other applications.

• Environmental service and natural resource systems, which includes study of systems, instruments and technology used in waste management; the study of the management of soil, water, wildlife, forests and air as natural resources and their influence on the environment.

• Plant systems, studying plant life cycles, classifications, functions, structures, reproduction, media and nutrients, as well as growth and cultural practices, through the study of crops, turf grass, trees and shrubs and/or ornamental plants.