Each year at the National FFA Convention & Expo, four FFA members are honored with American Star Awards for outstanding accomplishments in FFA and agricultural education.
The American Star Awards, including American Star Farmer, American Star in Agribusiness, American Star in Agricultural Placement and American Star in Agriscience, are presented to FFA members who demonstrate outstanding agricultural skills and competencies through completion of a supervised agricultural experience (SAE). A required activity in FFA, an SAE allows students to learn by doing, by either owning or operating an agricultural business, working or serving an internship at an agriculture-based business or conducting an agriculture-based scientific experiment and reporting results.
Congratulations to the 2020 American Star in Agricultural Placement winner:
Will Shelby, Oklahoma
Working with animals is second nature for Will Shelby of Madill FFA in Oklahoma. Raised by a veterinarian, Shelby experienced his future career early on, starting his placement supervised agricultural experience as a veterinary assistant in his father’s large-animal practice.
“Growing up around it, I kind of had an idea as to what I wanted to do,” Shelby said. “The older I got, the more I realized that maybe there’s a lot of different routes you could go in veterinary medicine that I wasn’t even aware of when I was younger. … I really began an interest in the reproductive side of things, especially in the bovine animal.”
Then, Shelby went on to work as a veterinary assistant at a practice in Cushing, Okla., last year.
“Vaccinations for dogs and cats, general exams and then even surgeries and things like that, I would assist on,” he said. “The veterinarian there also did some reproductive work for cattle, such as embryo transfer and AI [artificial insemination], so I got to be a part of that as well.”
While his father’s career helped Shelby figure out his own future, he said FFA helped him develop character, leadership skills and a strong work ethic.
“That’s something that I’m really thankful FFA taught me — I’m not sure I would be a strong-willed guy if I wasn’t at FFA,” Shelby said.
In his final year at Oklahoma State University, Shelby is preparing to attend veterinary school to practice large animal veterinary medicine in rural Oklahoma.
“There’s such a large demand for large animal veterinarians, especially in rural areas,” Shelby said. “Cattle, especially in Oklahoma, are such a big commodity to our agriculture industry.”
For FFA members starting a placement SAE, Shelby recommends giving different areas of agriculture a chance to find where your passion lies.
“Once you do that, buy into it and give it everything you have, because if you’re willing to do that, I can truthfully tell you this program, your SAE, you will get more from it than you ever could have imagined,” he said.
Shelby competed against the following American Star in Agricultural Placement finalists:
Wilson Nugent, Texas
Kids sometimes dream of being cowboys or cowgirls, riding horses and working cattle on the range. For Wilson Nugent of Gilmer FFA in Texas, that was his reality.
“It’s what I grew up in,” Nugent said. “I enjoy doing it. I love what I do. I think cowboy ranching is probably one of the best lifestyles there possibly is.”
For his placement supervised agricultural experience (SAE), Nugent continued his work on his grandfather’s cattle operation, H&W Cattle Company. On the job, he helps sort cattle, administer vaccinations and load cattle to be transported to the feed yard. He said he also learns about the broader economic and political sides of the beef industry.
Though Nugent had to help with the family business when he was younger, it’s a profession he sees himself staying in. His career goal: To own one of the biggest cattle operations in East Texas.
“I’d love to keep the tradition alive and make it bigger and better,” Nugent said, noting that his grandfather’s cattle company has spanned 50 years.
Through FFA, Nugent said he expanded upon what he already knew firsthand for livestock and horse judging. But he also developed another essential skill: public speaking.
“I was the Greenhand chapter degree officer, and I’m not a big talker,” Nugent said. “I’m a pretty shy person, and my ag teacher forced me to kind of do it. And it helped me a lot. … You’re going to have to learn how to speak to people and how to get along and do business with people.”
Nugent’s advice for FFA members starting a placement SAE is to listen and take advice from experienced people in the field.
“I was kind of a know-it-all type of person, I guess you would say — but within the last year or two, I’ve really understood to take advice from people who’ve been there and done that,” he said.”
Cole Schock, South Dakota
Cole Schock grew up around livestock. His grandparents own a dairy, and he got his start in agriculture at a young age, feeding bottle calves at the farm less than two miles down the road from his home. His responsibilities on Schock’s Dairy grew as he aged: feeding cows, milking them and administering vaccinations.
Schock, from McCook Central FFA in Salem, S.D., worked on the family dairy until 2018 when he found a way to explore a different avenue in the livestock industry.
“An opportunity had come up with Select Sires where the rep was out in my area, and we were talking about how AI technicians do this on dairies and large herds and provide this information,” Schock said. “I guess I got really interested in that.”
He took an internship with the company, earned his artificial insemination (AI) certificate and then was hired full time as an AI technician.
Through Select Sires and another position with Mile High Dairy in Longmont, Colo., Schock has kept close to the dairy industry.
“Managing the heifer yard to feeding heifers, to preg checking, from treating sick cows … all over the place,” he said.
The dairy community is tightknit, something Schock said he enjoys about this field.
“The community’s small in the dairy industry,” he said. “I like being part of that and being able to provide food for the world.”
Though he has a lot of hands-on experience in the livestock industry, Schock said he credits FFA with helping him develop communication skills and a hard work ethic. Now back in South Dakota, he said his community has helped him as well.
“Salem, South Dakota, is a heavily agricultural community, and everyone supports everyone,” Schock said. “[In] tough times, everyone’s got each other’s back.”
In the near future, Schock wants to continue working as an AI technician for Select Sires but someday wants to run his own dairy.
Ryan Stewart, Kansas
Between raising livestock and growing crops, Ryan Stewart of Washington County FFA in Washington, Kan., has struck a middle ground with his placement supervised agricultural experience (SAE). Raised around agriculture, Stewart got his start in agriculture with the family business, Stewart Seed LLC.
“I’ve worked for my parents’ business for, well, basically since I was born, since I was old enough to know better,” he said.
When Stewart entered high school and started FFA, he also had the opportunity to work with his cousin’s show cattle operation.
“When you work with cattle or work with crops, you’re learning pretty much every day until you stop working,” he said.
As Stewart cares for cattle, delivers seed, plants crops and scouts fields, he said he enjoys making a living outdoors.
“I definitely love the fact that I get to work outside. I like being active,” he said. “I don’t like sitting behind a computer all the time.”
But Stewart’s placement SAE doesn’t stop at production agriculture; in 2017, he attended the World Wide College of Auctioneering and landed auctioneering jobs at two sales companies.
He credits FFA for his public speaking skills, which connects his different lines of work.
“Public speaking really changed everything as far as what I do on the farm because whether it’s with my dad’s business or with my cousin’s bus