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Area youth takes tractor skills to national level this weekend

PHOTO SUBMITTED / Braxton Thompson, 17 and a sophomore at Enterprise High School, recently placed first in Mississippi in a 4-H tractor driving competition. Now, he will be representing the state at the national 4-H competition at Purdue University this weekend.

PHOTO SUBMITTED / Braxton Thompson, 15 and a sophomore at Enterprise High School, recently placed first in Mississippi in a 4-H tractor driving competition. Now, he will be representing the state at the national 4-H competition at Purdue University this weekend.

They may have liked his tractor, but they appreciated his driving more.

Kenny Chesney’s hit song, “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy,” might not have been running through the minds of the judges at the Mississippi 4-H competition held at Mississippi State University recently, but they did agree on one thing:

Braxton Thompson, a sophomore at Enterprise High School, exhibited the skills and the knowledge necessary to win the title of best small tractor driver in the state.

Now, Thompson will take his talents to the national level, and compete against other tractor drivers from across the nation at the 4-H competition held at Purdue University this weekend. The winner of the event will be considered the best small tractor driver in America.

“We are very proud of him. None of us were expecting him to win the entire competition. We knew he had the capability, but it was still a surprise to us,” said Lori Thompson on her son’s first place state finish in the state competition.

Last year, Braxton attended the state 4-H event but didn’t place in the event. That 4-H experience might have motivated him, or it might have helped to prepare him for this year’s event.

The 4-H competitions, at the state and national level, are meant to encourage youths to pursue agricultural or engineering careers by providing them hands-on design experience and competitive skills. Tractor driving is but one event out of many at the 4-H competitions. The contest has over a dozen categories, from agriculture to aerospace to engineering to welding, to name just a few.

Besides tractor riding, Braxton has learned the ins and outs of farm work, and is completely comfortable taking care of all manner of farm animals including cows, chickens, pigs, goats, rabbits and dogs. Baling hay, digging ditches for roads and posting fences can be a particularly strenuous exercise, and the constant duty on the farm helps develop muscles for football as well as producing quick yet careful tractor driving and agility skills.

Much of Thompson’s upbringing on a farm has served to help him with two of the things he happens to excel at the most: football and tractor driving. In between school and farm duties, He’s a running back for the Enterprise Yellow Jackets.

At Purdue this weekend, Thompson will be tested on a number of different tractor-related topics. He will have to know about tractor safety knowledge and be able to identify more than 70 tractor parts and materials.

And, of course, he will have to demonstrate his command of the small tractor (a 20-HP engine or less) by taking part in various driving competitions, which include hooking up to a trailer, navigating between markers, maintaining constant movement and keeping within two inches of the course at all times.

The tractor will be provided for contestants at the competition; however, all participants will have some practice time to get a feel for the tractor they will be driving.

The contest includes a timed written 75 parts to commit to memory in the parts/materials test, which means the contestant must not just be able to drive the tractor, but know specifically how it operates. Thus, the competition is part mechanical engineering, part memorization and part previous tractor driving. The individual with the lowest total score at the end of all competitions will be declared the winner.

Braxton says that much of his enthusiasm and inspiration for competitive tractor riding stems from his dad, Shane Thompson. Farm work and the associated tractor riding is a generational affair at the Thompson farm, and Braxton says he was fortunate to have learned most of it from his father. Since an early age, Braxton has been taking after his dad, who taught him most of his tractor riding skills.

“My daddy pretty much taught me everything I know,” Braxton said.

Lori Thompson said her son has been riding a tractor since the age of nine, or for about as long as she can remember. “Braxton has always been on a tractor. It’s something he is very familiar with,” she said.

After high school, Braxton said he plans to attend Co-Lin Community College. “I’d like to go into the medical field and help people.” Something related to agriculture was a close second, though. “I wouldn’t mind pursuing a career in agriculture either,” he said.

Mother and son were leaving Thursday for Lafayette, Ind., the home of Purdue University, where they will stay until Tuesday. The contest takes place from Sunday through Tuesday, Sept.29-Oct. 1.

“I’m excited to participate in this event. I don’t get out of town much,” Braxton said.

The history of the 4-H competition goes all the way back to the late 1800s and early 1900s. At the time, rural school principals and superintendents wanted to teach their students about the material they might need to succeed in the business world. While agricultural colleges and “experiment stations” were developing scientific knowledge that might improve the productivity and the standard of living for farmers, few farmers showed interest in what was considered “book farming” methods. Professors then thought that teaching farmers’ children these new advances and discoveries might allow the information to reach the farmers.

In 1907, a Mississippi man convinced the USDA to create its first youth program that would combine the efforts of county, state and federal members. It was called the 4-H program.