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Local girl's 'rabbit habit' earns FFA Keystone Degree

| Sunday, June 10, 2012, 4:06 p.m.

ARMAGH -- Ashley Sloan has devoted a substantial portion of the last seven years to raising and showing rabbits. That investment paid off for her in Harrisburg last month when she earned eight awards with her rabbits at the annual Pennsylvania Farm Show and also received the Keystone Degree, the highest mark of agricultural accomplishment in Pennsylvania's FFA organization.

Sloan, 17, a senior at United High School, was among 265 members from throughout the state who collected Keystone honors at the Pennsylvania FFA Mid-Winter Convention, held in conjunction with the farm show. That number also included a United classmate.

In her ongoing agricultural enterprise, Sloan has concentrated her efforts on two types of rabbits.

"I breed, raise, show and sell Flemish Giants and French Lops," she said. "To earn the degree, I had to have record books covering two years and either have put in 1,000 hours or have $100 in income from my project."

Well beyond the requirements, she estimates she has spent more than 13,000 hours working with the rabbits. That includes feeding and watering them, cleaning their cages, brushing them, clipping their nails and traveling to shows. She also maintains a website to promote her rabbits under the moniker Ashley's Rabbit Habit Rabbitry.

Sloan had as many as 70 rabbits at one time and currently has 55 in her barn in West Wheatfield Township. She used to raise a smaller breed of rabbits; the two breeds she now works with are larger and require more space.

Sloan turned her project into a family affair a few years ago when she got her mother, Kristine, and her grandmother, Pat Debnar, interested. They both now show rabbits.

At the state farm show last month, Sloan took Best of Breed with her Flemish Giant buck, Glitzen, and Best Opposite Sex of Breed with her Flemish Giant doe, Hop-A-Long Cassidy. If a buck rabbit is chosen as Best of Breed, then a doe is chosen as the Best Opposite Sex of Breed, and vice versa, she noted.

Two of her Flemish Giants each earned a Best of Variety nod for their respective fur colors -- sandy and fawn.

For each breed of rabbit, show judges first pick the top entry in each recognized color, or variety. They drawn from those initial winners when selecting the Best of Breed and, ultimately, the Best of Show.

In the French Lop competition at Harrisburg, Sloan also captured two Best of Variety prizes -- for a rabbit with a solid color and another with a broken color including patches of white. She was rewarded with Best Opposite Sex of Breed for a French Lop doe.

She also took third place in showmanship, competing against about 20 other seniors from across the state.

Also a winner

Keystone Degree recipient Richard W. Bennett Jr., also a senior at United High School, chose a project based on his family's history in the nursery business. He is raising Christmas trees and other nursery stock seedlings in a field behind his home near Brush Valley.

His great-grandparents, Mary C. Bennett and the late William R. Bennett, started Bennett's Nursery in 1952. After his great-grandfather passed away in 1988, his great-grandmother continued to run the business until 1999.

To fund his project and get his nursery business going, he landed a job when he was in ninth grade. He started working for Jeff McIntire at K and L Gas and Oil Inc. on Saturdays during the school year and full time in the summer.

He currently has 1,500 fieldstock plants for cut Christmas trees as well as balled and burlaped trees. He also grows seedlings and transplants to sell to individuals, homeowners, Christmas tree growers and other nurseries. His sales have not been enough for him to make a profit yet, but he is working hard to make his nursery a success.

The steps involved in getting his trees ready for sale include selecting a site for planting; deciding what types of trees to grow, with an eye to such factors as height; plowing and cultivating the soil; adding fertilizer, if needed; picking up the trees that have been ordered; then planting them within a day or two.

It takes six to eight years for a two-year seedling to reach a height of five to six feet, he explained. After an initial growth period, the trees need to be sheared at least once a year to get them to the desired shape and size.

Bennett also is growing apple trees from seeds as well as a variety of ornamental trees such as hemlock.

The national FFA organization, formerly know as Future Farmers of America, has the goal of developing students' potential for leadership, personal growth and career success through agricultural education.

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