Trio of Minnesota FFA State Officers Find a Home at UMN Crookston
CROOKSTON, Minn. - Not one, not two, but three. Three is the magic number this year when it comes to current Minnesota State FFA Officers on the University of Minnesota Crookston campus. It seemed unthinkable. UMN Crookston is no stranger to having a state officer on-campus. Britton Fuglseth (reporter) did it in 2019-20. Eleora DeMuth (reporter) did it in 2017-18. James Mathiowetz (sentinel) is on campus now after serving in his role in 2018-19. But this year, UMN Crookston boasts the current Minnesota State FFA President Ben Olander, Treasurer Elaina Knott, and Sentinel Laney Swiers.
It is a unique happenstance for the Golden Eagles. And one, that when the officers were first announced in May 2020, seemed unbelievable even to the trio involved.
“I was the first one announced and thought I was going to be the only one that is going to be from Minnesota Crookston,” Swiers stated. “There was Britton, there was Eleora. There has never been more than one person in a class from Crookston. They said the name of Anna (Euerle) early, and then they said Elaina. Elaina is from region one and we were on a region team together. She was the region president and I was the region vice president. I literally bawled my eyes out because I was like ‘that is so cool.’ I called Elaina right after and was like ‘are you joking, this is amazing.’ And lastly, Ben got called. And I was like wow, we are really representing the north. This is what I wanted so bad. I think it is awesome that we all three get to represent our regions and UMN Crookston.”
All three have had different paths in FFA, but they all have one main similarity - the overall impact the organization has had on their lives. For Olander, a graduate of Staples-Motley H.S., FFA first piqued his interest through supervised agricultural experiences or work-based learning. He was driving home one day and told his father that he wanted to start his own steer business. From there, the two tried to figure out the best way in which he could start his own business. “That summer my Dad and I went to Menards and built a lean-to and a pen for them and that fall and spring I ended up getting my own steers and raised them for five or six years until I graduated,” Olander stated.
For Knott, she started out in FFA purely to get awards, plaques, and medals while competing in the poultry competition. It was actually almost by accident that she ended up in a leadership role within her high school FFA organization at Lincoln H.S. in Thief River Falls, Minn. “I accidentally went into the FFA and agriculture room,” said Knott. “I was bringing in my check for $30 for the dues, and they were in the middle of chapter officer interviews. That is not something I wanted to do. I wanted to be strictly in the poultry competition, nothing else, nothing more. Mrs. Katie Shaw, my advisor, saw me and she sat me down. I got almost every question wrong about FFA and the next year I was a student advisor on the chapter officer team. It all started when I accidentally walked into the ag room when they were doing officer interviews.”
Swiers’ path to FFA started because of her siblings, and more specifically the impact of her older sister Lindsey. “My sister Lindsey was in FFA and she was in the Nursery/Landscape CDE contest,” Swiers remembered. “All of my siblings have been in FFA. I am the fifth kid. My dad was in the FFA. My mom was in FFA.. My sister Lindsey encouraged me to join and she said you should do Nursery/Landscape Career Development Event (CDE) with me. I was like okay. I didn’t really have a thing for plants when I was in high school. Little did I know I would be minoring in it when I got to college. I am minoring in horticulture all because of Nursery/Landscape.”
They each had their different routes to their leadership positions within FFA. Like stated before, Knott’s was almost by accident, but both Olander and Swiers had their paths a little more planned out. For Swiers, she always had envisioned the potential of being in a leadership position, but she didn’t think it was truly possible. It would be at the State Greenhand Leadership Conference (SGLC) during the summer after her freshman year that Swiers truly started to believe it was possible. It was also with the help of someone who would eventually become a friend and fellow Golden Eagle.
“I remember the summer after my freshman year I went to a conference called SGLC (State Greenhand Leadership Conference),” Swiers said. “The state officers there were mesmerizing. It was an all girl team, so I was like, ‘that could be me.’ I thought I needed to do a lot of work to get there. There was a girl named Emma there and she told me you could be a state officer. And Eleora (DeMuth) was a state officer at the time. She was the state reporter. For the last day of the conference she came up to me and said, ‘Laney, you need to work hard and get involved because you would be an amazing state officer.’ I took that to heart. I went home and practiced interview questions for years after that. I was like I am going to be a state officer because Eleora told me I could be.”
Olander’s road to a leadership position began because of what he observed at a leadership conference within FFA. “I really never dreamed that I was going to get to a leadership position like this,” Olander stated. “I went to a region two leadership rally. The first one I went to in the fall of my freshman year. I saw the region officer team and region president there and saw what they did to facilitate the event, including some of the organizational skills. I am very detail-oriented and I like to see some of those things come together. I thought it was so cool to see how they ran it as students. FFA is considered the largest student-lead organization in the world, and it is. It is incredible to see students and what they can actually do.
All three students had different paths within the organization, but amazingly they would all find their way to UMN Crookston. Swiers from Mahnomen, Knott from Thief River Falls, and Olander from Staples.
“Sophomore and junior year I was set on going to NDSU,” Olander stated. “I went on a tour there and I absolutely hated it. I like the small town feel. Their lecture halls are huge. The campus takes 20 minutes to walk across from one corner to another. At UMN Crookston, I have timed it in five to seven minutes. The other thing up here, I mentioned I like to work. It has been easy to find funds to support working on different projects. While you may find your group within your classes (at a bigger school), I don’t think you get the connection with the whole campus or the overall diverse group. You wouldn’t acclimate with each other as you do here because of the small town feel. Even if I go out of my hall, even though it is a COVID year, you still recognize a lot of people. You walk by and say, ‘hey, I recognize that person.’ It is definitely something I truly enjoy.”
“I originally wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon and then I was really kicking around being a veterinarian, until later into my sophomore year,” Knott recalled. “I then started to see what my ag teacher was doing and all the different impacts she has on her students, and impact on myself, as well. I started getting involved on the region level and now onto the state level. It was very apparent to me I needed to be an ag teacher and that is where I wanted to be. I absolutely love sharing my passions for agriculture, a little extra to the poultry. I also love seeing members develop those leadership characteristics I got and to have those aha moments. I absolutely love that. When I had my major figured out, I started to look at colleges like one does. I was dead set on going to the Twin Cities ever since I was very young. I started to look at their ag ed program and I started to see that it wasn’t what I really wanted. I love the atmosphere down in the Cities, but I personally didn’t think the education was as quality as I could get in Crookston. I would say that I get a lot more hands-on experiences in Crookston. Yesterday I was in the barn shearing sheep. Never have I ever done that before. That was interesting. At the same time, we are shearing sheep, we have a heifer giving birth a few pens over. It just shows the small community Crookston has and the opportunities we have available as students.”
“After ninth grade I went to a conference called Intense,” Swiers remembered. “We went all across Minnesota to different businesses, industries, and universities. We started at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and eventually made our way to UMN Crookston. That is where I found my niche. My advisor -Jenna (Cardinal) Bendickson - went to UMC and she always talked about it. I was focused on the Twin Cities for a while, and I didn’t want to go college until I went to Intense. That is where I found my place to belong here at UMC. It was kind of cool. My advisor was the one who was talking to us when we got to UMC. She was showing us around and telling us about ag ed and different places on campus. I was like, I could see myself going here.”
While they all have had different routes, they were all influenced by FFA in their lives. Now they are enjoying UMN Crookston and serving as Minnesota State FFA Officers while on the same campus. It has great advantages, especially in a COVID year where they have hosted many of their events virtually.
“It is honestly so cool,” Swiers said. “We can go into one of our rooms and prepare for convention or we can record videos. It is so easy, it is so accessible. They are amazing people. It is a huge bonus that I get to be on the same campus as them.”
“It is pretty special,” Olander stated. “It has been a blessing for the three of us because we have been able to work on some projects together. I work with Laney and she shoots a lot of my videos because she has a nice camera. They both know how to put videos together and I didn’t know how before this year. That became an important tool. Now I am able to do some of my own work. Being there for one another and providing those opportunities and support has been really special.”
They have also been comforted by having other past FFA State Officers on campus in DeMuth, Fuglseth, and Mathiowetz who have been instrumental in providing guidance and help whenever the trio needs it.
“When we came here, Britton, Eleora, and James were on our case,” Swiers recalled. “They were going to help us out with everything we needed FFA-wise and Ag Ed-wise. Me and Elaina have coffee with Eleora just to talk about life and talk about Ag Ed, how passionate we are about it, what emphasis we want to go into and what school districts. Knowing someone is further along than us, but is still passionate about it, is so great to hear. It is the same thing with Britton. We can sit down with her for hours and talk about Ag Ed, our chapter, and FFA. It is nice to have someone to talk to who understands because they have been state officers too. There are a lot of challenging parts of being a state officer. There are more amazing parts, but also those challenging parts they have experience in. It is nice to have someone to talk about it.”
Olander, Knott, and Swiers are currently putting the final touches on the FFA State Convention set to take place next week April 19-23 virtually. They have been putting in the work and all three are excited to unveil everything they will be doing for the convention.
“I think back to March 2020 and I was like, ‘oh, I am just going to go to the next day and to the next day.’,” stated Olander. “You don’t necessarily think about some of those things you take for granted on a day-to-day basis. The virtual world has opened up the ability to have some different experiences that you would otherwise travel to in-person in a normal year and probably wouldn’t be able to make it. Our convention theme this year is “Worth It.” As you look forward to future conventions, I wouldn’t be surprised if in-person attendance isn’t as high as it used to be. That isn’t a bad thing. It just means people are receiving that information in a different way. A phrase I often use is to optimistically adapt. It has allowed us to adapt to different things as they came about, and finding opportunities. You learn to never look too far into the future and take it day-by-day, and not take for granted some of the things you have.”
“We are doing a virtual convention this year,” Knott stated. “We are meeting in the Cities to record our entire convention. We will have five sessions. Convention will be five days long. They are just very short snippets because nobody wants to sit in front of a screen for very long. We are trying to come up with content that is worthwhile to watch for our members, for our teachers, for our partners. When it comes to convention, those videos will be rolled out throughout the state. There are different challenges. We’ve been very thankful to partner with our financial partners and our foundation to provide some really awesome prizes for our members, to encourage them to come and reward them. Our team will be traveling that entire week across the state. We will be living out of a van and maybe a couple of hotel rooms. We will be stopping by and literally rolling down a window and giving some kids their awards, waving, shouting and then rolling the window up and down the road we go.”
“Honestly I am so excited,” Swiers said with a big smile on her face. “I am literally shaking every time I think about it. It is going to be so cool. At first we were so bummed it was going to be virtual. The more we planned, the more we talked about it, we were like, we need to execute this because it can be really cool. We are pre-recording convention and then we are going to be sending it out April 19-20. Through the entire week the state officers will be driving through Minnesota and waving through our windows at different chapters. I will save all the details for later because we don’t want to give away the surprises.”
FFA has given so much to the trio of State Officers on the UMN Crookston campus. They are groundbreaking. They have bucked the trend of state officers at larger institutions like South Dakota State, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, and North Dakota State University. It has brought more attention to Crookston within the FFA community.
“You don’t see a lot of officers come to the U of M Crookston,” Olander said. “It has been really nice for Minnesota Crookston to have that representation and be able to feature some of the things on the campus.”
FFA has provided so many things for Olander, Swiers, and Knott. They have grown as leaders, have become more career ready, and they have experienced personal growth. None of them envisioned becoming the leaders they have through FFA, but it is something they will forever be grateful for.
“So I will preach until the day I die that FFA has given me so much personal growth,” Knott said. “That is one of three things as an organization we really believe our students get. It is real. I experienced an immense amount of personal growth. FFA made me a much better person, getting away from only wanting the recognition and really valuing leadership and in general learning to be a better person.”
“I would say career readiness,” Swiers said regarding the main impacts FFA has had on her life. “I am a lot more secure in my public speaking. You hear it all the time, but you hear it all of the time because it is true. It sounds so cliche, and it sounds like a normal thing that everyone is good at public speaking - but it actually helps. Also FFA has helped with passion. I found my passion for agricultural education within FFA. I have never felt as passionate about anything in my entire life and honestly I could talk about it for days.”
It will be exciting to see where the paths of Olander, Knott, and Swiers go from here. Their years as Minnesota State FFA Officers will soon be ending, but their journeys have just started. Olander is pursuing degrees in agricultural business and agronomy with a minor in finance. Knott is seeking a degree in agricultural education. Swiers is an agricultural education major with a minor in horticulture. UMN Crookston is proud to call all three of them Golden Eagles and excited to see how their futures soar.