By Christopher Tenpenny
At George Frees’ fifth birthday party, he received a peculiar gift from his parents, but a gift he had so desperately asked for – an elephant ear plant. Frees developed a love for plants at a young age and he would spend years measuring and charting the growth of his elephant ear plant.
This was simply the first step of Frees’ career that led him to winning first place in the Agriscience Plant Systems Proficiency Award at the Future Farmers of America (FFA) National Convention Oct. 28 in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Harrisonville native is the first member from the Cass Career Center to win a first-place award at the national convention.
Frees, now a freshman at the University of Missouri, studied the application of gibberellic acid to sugarcane to speed its growth and investigate the effects gibberellic acid application has on ethanol production. Gibberellic acid is a hormone found in plants and fungi.
“It feels amazing to win this award,” Frees said. “I put a lot of work into this project. The award itself is not what is important to me and there are so many people who helped me along the way and I know it means a lot to them.”
The decision to use sugarcane for the project came before Frees had any interest in FFA. As a 13-year-old, Frees went to marine biology camp which traveled to Jamaica. Frees talked to sugarcane farmers and became interested in its use as ethanol.
“I’ve always been interested in science,” Frees said. “My mother (Laura) is a teacher and my father (Karl) is a horse surgeon. As far back as I can remember, I’ve been interested in how things work and how to improve them.”
Once in high school, Frees had little interest in FFA, but took an agriscience class at the Cass Career Center. Being able to work with plants piqued Frees’ interest and he joined FFA. From there, he began growing sugarcane in the career center’s greenhouse using gibberellic acid.
FFA advisor Jason Dieckhoff said Frees was the first student in the career center’s 72-year history to pursue an agriscience project.
Dieckhoff said, “It’s more unique and more challenging. We now have close to a dozen students working on agriscience projects. It impresses me how he paved the road for other students.”
Frees would spend hours measuring the growth of his sugarcane plants. When it came time for FFA conventions, Frees would have to put together a 45-page document outlining his results as well as give a presentation on his research. His findings helped earn him a full-ride scholarship to the University of Missouri as well as $16,000 for research and travel. This came by way of the Stamp Scholarship, a scholarship given to less than 300 students per year.
Frees’ research has drawn interest from sugarcane farmers in Brazil, the largest producer of sugarcane in the world. With nearly 50 percent of Brazil’s liquid fuel coming from ethanol, farmers utilizing Frees techniques could create an increase of biofuel.
Research on gibberellic acid is still relatively new as it first came to the attention of western scientists in the 1950s. Its primary use is on citrus fruits to help with defrosting in cooler temperatures. Frees is one of the first to look at how the acid can be used to increase growth for ethanol. To Frees’ knowledge, there is no one else researching this particular project.
“It’s like the dream of every scientist to discover something new,” Frees said. “It could help reduce climate change and to be the first, or one of the first, to share with people is very exciting.”
Frees has begun two projects at MU and spends nearly 20 hours a week in the labs on top of being a double-major studying biochemistry and plant science. Frees says he loves doing research and long hours do not bother him. He just wants to make the world a better place.