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Agri Ready Profile: Rylyn Small’s students inspired him to write winning grants for ag education.

March 26, 2024

7 Min Read
Young men drilling nails into wood
HANDS ON: Students at East Prairie High School have the opportunity to build projects in their Agri-Center thanks to the dedication of one teacher who felt small-town schools need resources to train the next generation in trades like construction, welding and small engine mechanics, so he sought out unconventional funding. Photos courtesy of Rylyn Small

by Emma Alexander

Rylyn Small teaches in one of the poorest counties in the state of Missouri, but that didn’t stop him from building an agriculture center that empowers students for careers in the trade industry.

“When I started teaching seven years ago, our program had itty bitty classrooms and a shop that we could only fit 15 kids into at once,” Small says of East Prairie High School in Mississippi County. “Our kids didn’t have access to things other kids did.”

The agricultural education teacher changed that by writing and winning about $400,000 in grant money for the school’s program and curriculum.

“I have a good story to tell in each grant application,” Small shares. “I write about our kids because they are worth it and easy to write about. I think about the kids the whole time I write.”

Garnering attention for small-town school

Small contends that while some students will attend college, others need to be taught a trade and a skill. He grew up in agriculture near East Prairie and says he understands what students need to not only “hit the ground running” after high school but also to thrive in the agricultural economy of southeast Missouri.

“A lot of our kids leave school at 2 p.m. each day to go to work,” Small says. “They need to be trained in construction, electrical, plumbing and welding.”

So he took the initiative to bring those opportunities to rural Missouri.

His passion for students and agriculture education paid off in:

  • a $189,000 USDA grant to help build the East Prairie Agri-Science Center.

  • a $100,000 USDA grant to purchase a tractor, welders and other large implements to make the center functional.

  • $100,000 from Harbor Freight Tools for Schools to purchase tools and small engine necessities for East Prairie’s agriculture mechanics curriculum.

Teacher Rylyn Small smiling and stands next to a large check from

Today, Small uses the facility and equipment to teach students how to build trailers, practice welding skills, learn ag power, and troubleshoot and repair small engines.

Upon graduation, many of his students are hired as farm laborers, tractor drivers, truckers, welders and deckhands on river barges.

Today, the East Prairie FFA chapter boasts 127 members, which represents 42% of students in the high school.

Divine intervention directs new path

Agriculture education was not in Small’s original career plans.

“I started as a pre-vet student, but it became obvious when I couldn’t make it through organic chemistry that I would have to make a change,” he remembers. “I thought, ‘I like teaching, and I like FFA.’ I feel like God called me to be an ag teacher. I don’t know if I would’ve survived four years of vet school.”

He earned a bachelor’s degree at Southeast Missouri State University and a master’s degree at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Small served as a 2013-14 Missouri FFA officer.

Along with his wife Kayla, Small settled in #Agri-Ready designated Mississippi County, where he became a co-adviser for the first six years with his own high school FFA adviser, Nick Nordwald.

Most recently, he was the 2023 National Association of Agricultural Educators Early Career Teacher of the Year for the state of Missouri and NAAE U.S. Region 4, which encourages young teachers to remain in the profession and recognizes their participation in professional activities. Small is the current president-elect for the Missouri Vocational Agriculture Teaching Association, a member of Missouri Farmers Care.

If Small is not in the classroom, he is floating or fishing Ozark rivers, riding horses with his wife or fulfilling his calling as a youth pastor at the Elm Street Baptist Church in Charleston.

In all facets of his life, Small remains committed to ensuring young people are prepared for the world beyond high school.

Interior of a barn with hay, feed and mats

An in-depth look

Small took some time to talk with Missouri Ruralist:

What makes Southeast Missouri agriculture so unique from the rest of the state? It’s flat! Southeast Missouri is so diverse when it comes to agriculture. Instead of the rolling hills, we have the swampy flats. We have everything from cotton and rice to corn and soybeans, and there isn't anywhere else I would rather be teaching.

What is your advice to new agriculture teachers? Build relationships with your students first. If you do not show them that you truly care about them, you will not have buy-in to your program when it matters the most. Also, do not feel that you have to be an expert at everything. Teaching is all about learning — even if that means learning the material before you teach it the next day.

What is your favorite part of your job? My favorite part of my job is seeing when students “get it.” Either they work with their animals on campus before a show or tear down a small engine for the first time. Life lessons are the most important part of my job, and it is so refreshing seeing that click with my students.

A teacher showing a student how to use a drill

How did you learn to write grants successfully? I never really took any classes for writing grants, it was simply finding a need within our agricultural department and seeking ways to make that happen.  It is awesome to take a student's idea of their needs and watch it come to life with a grant award notification. My motto is, “The worst they can say is no.”

What's your favorite podcast to listen to and why? My favorite podcast is by William Davis, a youth pastor in Lexington, Ky. A lot of lessons and ideas that I use in youth ministry as a youth pastor apply to what I do every day in the classroom. I start with God every morning and call it, “Having breakfast with Jesus.” Without that, I wouldn't be able to walk into the classroom every day and be the teacher that I need to be for my students.

What is the title of the book your mom will write about you? I asked my mom, and she said “The Pursuit” because whenever I see a need for my students, it becomes a mission to make it happen for them.

Why should students get involved in agriculture education? It’s all a part of the three-circle model of agricultural education. Through agricultural education, students learn critical life skills, community engagement and, most importantly, career opportunities.

Small in brief

Favorite tractor? 1990 John Deere 4055. It is the tractor I learned to drive on.

Truck? Ram 250 0 Cummins

Livestock? Brangus cattle

Pet? Blue, my blue heeler

Book? 1611 KJV Bible

Meat? Medium rare ribeye

Mentor? Definitely my dad, Kevin Small. He taught me everything from how to hunt and fish to how to drive a tractor or swing a hammer.

Alexander writes from Olga.

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