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Plan for FFA success in Minnesota

Hard work pays off for students who wish to excel in contests.

Kevin Schulz, Editor

January 27, 2023

4 Min Read
teacher standing among students at desks
LEARNING TO DO: Mike Sheely, here teaching a natural resources class, says the success of the Maple River High School program is a credit to community support, which results in good students willing to work hard.Kevin Schulz

All great teams are the sum of its parts, and it takes all involved working in unison toward a common goal to achieve success.

Maple River High School’s agriculture department and FFA chapter are achieving because of a lot of parts working together.

“It comes down to, we’ve got the best kids,” says Mike Sheely, ag instructor and FFA advisor, “and that comes from parents, that comes from grandparents, that comes from a community culture.”

Maple River’s student body comes from the communities of Amboy, Good Thunder, Minnesota Lake and Mapleton, which is where a new K-12 building sits on the south edge of town in Blue Earth County.

Sheely came to Maple River on his first teaching job out of the University of Minnesota, and he likens his landing at the school as being dealt a good poker hand. “I’m dealing with an ace, a king, a queen and maybe another ace — and some other schools, you may not have as good of a hand. It makes it so easy because you put kids in the right spot, and that starts with your community.”

Putting students in the right spot is a pattern that Sheely has developed over the years, as he has learned his students’ strengths, and they have learned his commitment. Along with stressing classroom success, Sheely sees that success translating into success in FFA contests. That didn’t happen overnight.

Sheely says there were 12 FFA members when he started in 2012, and the number grew slowly to the current 112.

“I think the key is, students need to see other people’s success,” he says, “to know they can do it. Sometimes they don’t believe in themselves. … They just got to do it and see it and be like, ‘I can do this. I can achieve this. All I got to do is work hard.’ [In] FFA and even our ag classes it’s not who is the smartest, it’s who’s willing to work the hardest. And that’s why I love it.”

Today’s success has been bred by success of the past, as Sheely says, “due to the classes of 2013, 2014, 2015, where we had some success at state. We were happy to get a team through — two teams through, three teams. And the kids who are younger see that, and they’re like, ‘I can do that because they can do it.’ Now it’s so easy because it’s what’s expected.”

That momentum culminated at the 2022 Minnesota FFA Convention, where Maple River had its best statistical showing, with 10 teams in the top seven placings and two state winners.

Sheely and his fellow ag teacher, Lea Zuern, could push to have a state champion every year, “but our goal is to have our juniors and seniors in the top five at state,” he says. “We’d rather have more kids have a great experience than a few kids have an amazing experience and go to nationals.”

For his mentorship in the program and the success at Maple River, Sheely was honored as FFA Advisor of the Year by the Minnesota Farm Bureau at that organization’s annual meeting in November.

Feeder program

To mimic what a lot of youth sports programs have in place, Sheely has devised a feeder program for younger students, giving seventh- and eighth-graders a limited menu of potential contest teams.

“Take milk quality that is offered to the younger students; we’re not trying to learn the entire contest,” he says. “We’re trying to learn some of it and make them feel like, ‘Hey, I did that part really well. That way when they’re in ninth grade, they’ve got a head start.”

His goal is to have his students peak as juniors and seniors, and those upperclassmen typically make up the farm management, milk quality and crops teams. “If you have a team that is all seniors, you’re probably with your friends,” he says, “and part of this is having fun, right? It’s not just competing.”

Last year’s floral team threw Sheely’s formula out the window, as that team — made up of sophomores — exceeded expectations by winning at state and advancing to the National FFA Convention and contest.

FFA prohibits repeat winners, so once a team wins state and goes to nationals, they must then choose another category for subsequent years. “That’s insane that they won it as sophomores — super tickled,” he says, “but they’re done with floral, and they have to pick a new contest for this year.”

As Sheely and Zuern divide the ag classes offered at the high school, there is no way the two of them can adequately prepare students for the contests in each of the varied areas. That is where the community aspect comes in as others who receive assistant stipends help prepare FFA members.

Mariah Moore, a Maple River grad; Collin Nienhaus, a middle school science teacher; and Alicia Sandberg, a STEAM (science, technology, arts, engineering and mathematics) teacher, offer their specialties to the team effort.

About the Author(s)

Kevin Schulz

Editor, The Farmer

Kevin Schulz joined The Farmer as editor in January of 2023, after spending two years as senior staff writer for Dakota Farmer and Nebraska Farmer magazines. Prior to joining these two magazines, he spent six years in a similar capacity with National Hog Farmer. Prior to joining National Hog Farmer, Schulz spent a long career as the editor of The Land magazine, an agricultural-rural life publication based in Mankato, Minn.

During his tenure at The Land, the publication grew from covering 55 Minnesota counties to encompassing the entire state, as well as 30 counties in northern Iowa. Covering all facets of Minnesota and Iowa agriculture, Schulz was able to stay close to his roots as a southern Minnesota farm boy raised on a corn, soybean and hog finishing farm.

One particular area where he stayed close to his roots is working with the FFA organization.

Covering the FFA programs stayed near and dear to his heart, and he has been recognized for such coverage over the years. He has received the Minnesota FFA Communicator of the Year award, was honored with the Minnesota Honorary FFA Degree in 2014 and inducted into the Minnesota FFA Hall of Fame in 2018.

Schulz attended South Dakota State University, majoring in agricultural journalism. He was also a member of Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity and now belongs to its alumni organization.

His family continues to live on a southern Minnesota farm near where he grew up. He and his wife, Carol, have raised two daughters: Kristi, a 2014 University of Minnesota graduate who is married to Eric Van Otterloo and teaches at Mankato (Minn.) East High School, and Haley, a 2018 graduate of University of Wisconsin-River Falls. She is married to John Peake and teaches in Hayward, Wis. 

When not covering the agriculture industry on behalf of The Farmer's readers, Schulz enjoys spending time traveling with family, making it a quest to reach all 50 states — 47 so far — and three countries. He also enjoys reading, music, photography, playing basketball, and enjoying nature and campfires with friends and family.

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