(Editor's note: This is the first part in a two-part series looking at Star award finalists from the region. Next week's will feature Cole Ketterling of Wishek, N.D.)

SALEM, S.D. — From a very young age Cole Schock knew he wanted to be involved in the dairy industry. He says it started when he worked on his grandfather’s dairy operation.

“I always wanted to be a dairy farmer,” he says.

However, with the large amount of capital required to start an operation he decided to take a different path.

“I thought if I can’t milk them, I might as well make more of them, and with reproduction you’re making a lot of calves," he said.

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The McCook Central FFA member grew that passion starting in seventh grade through his Supervised Agricultural Experience, or SAE, program, which consisted of various jobs that were tied to the industry. He has been working full-time as a professional artificial insemination technician for Select Sires and, in that role, he services the reproductive programs for dairy and beef herds between Madison and Montrose, S.D. He also has worked at Mile High Dairy in the Longmont area of Colorado, where he managed the heifers, was a relief milker and helped with the herd hospital.

Schock’s job experiences are being recognized by the National FFA Organization as he has been named one of the 16 finalists for this year’s American Star awards. He says the honor still hasn’t sunk in.

“I can’t believe it, honestly.”

Shock is one of four FFA members vying for American Star in Agricultural Placement, which recognizes an FFA member for the hours he or she works in the agricultural industry through an internship or a full- or part-time job. Three other categories of Star are American Star Farmer, American Star in Agribusiness and American Star in Agriscience. North Dakota's Cole Ketterling is a finalist for American Star Farmer.

The winners will be named at this year’s National FFA Convention Oct. 27-29, which will be held virtually due to the pandemic. Schock says that dramatically altered the way the contest was conducted. FFA members still filled out lengthy Star applications documenting their SAE and their career in FFA, plus they wrote essays. Those were judged and narrowed down to four finalists in each area. However, instead of in-person interviews that are normally held during the convention, this year that part of the contest was conducted via Zoom. Cole says that made it tough.

“Growing up and doing (Career Development Events) and proficiencies in FFA, you always got to see the judge face to face," he says. "Now you’re looking at them through a screen."

During the interviews, Schock says the judges asked him about the growing ethnic labor force in agriculture in the United States, from the dairy to produce sectors. They wanted to know specifically how he has overcome the challenges that diversity brings, especially the language barrier.

“That has always been a tough one, because it’s really hard speaking another language,” he says.

Although he admits he has learned enough to do his job effectively, he also believes the foreign labor force is critical as they often take jobs that many Americans do not want to do and they are helping to feed the world.

Schock’s advice is simple for other FFA members wanting to achieve the same level of success that he has.

“Find your passion in agriculture, and go with it. It may be a good experience, or it may be a bad experience, but if you don’t try to find your passion, you won’t ever know and have a desire to do it,” he says.