A University of South Dakota student is a finalist for a national award in Future Farmers of America.
Sophomore Mark Keck’s approach to a required project led him to be one of four finalists in the running for the American Star in Agriscience Award.
Each finalist received a $2,000 cash award along with a trip to Costa Rica. The sophomore is taking his vacation next June.
He will find out if he won the award in November at the National FFA Convention in Louisville, Kent. The winner will receive an additional $2,000.
The four-year experiment started when Keck was a high school sophomore at Plainview High School in his hometown of Plainview, Neb.
“In FFA, they have what they call an SAE — Supervised Agricultural Experience — and everyone has one to complete. A lot of kids do cattle — that’s an easy one. A lot of them grow grain,” he said.
The sophomore’s method was to do a research project for his SAE.
Steve Keck, his father and an independent agronomist of 32 years, wanted to test the new nitrogen inhibitor NeutriSphere locally before he recommended it to farmers.
The fertilizer promised to keep the nitrogen on crops and out of ground water to create better yields, and consequently, be safer for the environment. Having it as Mark Keck’s FFA project was a way for both father and son to benefit, and a project they could work on together.
“I really like science and gardening. I had my own garden when I was six or seven, so I love plants, I love science, and I just tied the two together with my interest in Agriscience,” Keck said.
Since the first year’s response to the inhibitor involved high rain totals, the solution was modified for year two. The first three years included tests of different soils and treatments to crops on two farms. Each year, there was a higher crop yield.
“I wanted to see if NeutriSphere helped, and it did; it increased yields. So we said, ‘Since it works, let’s try NeutriSphere against the opponent Agrotain,’ which is another nitrogen inhibitor,” Keck said.
For the last year of the project, a test was done comparing the two inhibitors, again with a positive result.
“What made this research project so unique is that, in the scientific world, it is hard to get something to repeat itself, and it was a phenomenal project in that way,” Steve Keck said.
The father-son duo got the positive experiment results to repeat three years in a row. Steve Keck said, in that way, the project was taken to the next level.
The SAE he had done was in one of the 49 different categories to choose. Out of these categories, only the top three projects, including Mark Keck’s, moved on from districts. The projects were then reviewed at the state level and Keck’s was among the top three to be submitted to the national competition.
Four finalists were chosen for each of the four American Star Award categories —American Star Farmer, American Star in Agribusiness, American Star in Agricultural Placement, and American Star in Agriscience, which is what Keck’s project fell under.
More than 3,000 students involved within the 49 areas were narrowed down to only 16 finalists, Keck being one of them.
“The award is really competitive and really hard to get into, because it’s broad compared to the others that are more specialized,” Keck said.
The National FFA Organization says the award is the most prestigious honor given out to a student.
Requirements include having mastered skills in production, finance, management, and/or research, along with the earning of the American FFA degree.
Teaming up with a USD statistics professor, Mark Keck was able to analyze the data he had found through his research project. He said, to compete at a national level, statistics are essential.
Mark Keck sent in his application, and after review, in July, he received a call from the state office finding out he was a finalist.
“I asked my adviser if he was joking, because I couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘It’s a good thing I’m sitting down right now or I would’ve fallen over,’” Mark Keck said.
Adviser Chad Kment had never had a student become a finalist before, so Mark Keck said he was excited, along with his father. Steve Keck said he can see how the experience has helped his son in college.
“His writing skills have improved. He used to just put in words to fill space, but he’s learned ultimately in research you have to be more direct,” Steve Keck said.
The National FFA Convention will be held in Louisville, Kent., Oct. 30 through Nov. 2.
There, Mark Keck will be interviewed by a panel of up to 16 judges, for anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes. Candidates are encouraged to come well prepared.
“I’m reading information on NeutriSphere, and I’m going to do some mock judges with some chemical reps,” he said.
After a full weekend of meet-and-greets with high school students from around the country, a short video of each candidate will be played as they are introduced on stage Nov. 2. The convention audience, as well as Rural Free Delivery TV viewers, will be able to see the winner of the Star Award be announced.
Mark Keck said the experiment led him to have a greater appreciation for agriculture. He said this project has helped him choose his major.
“I actually wanted to do pre-med, and then I realized I liked plants and not guts,” Mark Keck said.