WEST CONCORD — Katie Fitzgerald bought a shorthorn heifer calf when she was 6 years old.

That probably sounds like the start of the Triton High School senior being named Minnesota's 2020 FFA Star Farmer at the state's virtual convention last week. But, for Fitzgerald, it goes back further than that.

"Ever since I was born, my family has had cattle," she said, adding that she also had spent years watching two older siblings show animals. "I bought her because I wanted to start showing on my own."

Immediately, she began getting that heifer ready to show, doing things like halter-training her, spending time with her to build trust, and washing and brushing her to make her coat fluffier. By that summer, a very young Katie was taking her 1,200-pound heifer to shows, leading the animal around and getting out there in front of people.

Katie Fitzgerald, the Minnesota FFA Star Farmer of the year, leans in to pet two-month-old calf Cletus on Wednesday, May 27, 2020, in a pasture outside her home in West Concord. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
Katie Fitzgerald, the Minnesota FFA Star Farmer of the year, leans in to pet two-month-old calf Cletus on Wednesday, May 27, 2020, in a pasture outside her home in West Concord. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

"I had no fear in the world when I was younger," Katie said with a laugh, looking back on the size difference between her younger self and the cow. "Nothing really scared me."

Describing Katie as fearless seems appropriate, but her FFA advisers at Triton have a different word: focused.

"I’ve known Katie for 10 years," said Rober Ickler, an agri-science instructor and FFA adviser at Triton. "I could tell she was going places because she kept trying to win things. She was always doing things to grow her project and improve herself."

Katie Fitzgerald, the Minnesota FFA Star Farmer of the year, brings her cow Ellie to the pasture on Wednesday, May 27, 2020, outside her home in West Concord. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
Katie Fitzgerald, the Minnesota FFA Star Farmer of the year, brings her cow Ellie to the pasture on Wednesday, May 27, 2020, outside her home in West Concord. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

Ickler said watching someone so young who analyzes the costs and benefits of every decision concerning her herd makes him hopeful for the future of farming.

"We need awesome individuals like Katie," he said. "She’ll be able to overcome obstacles and figure a way to be creative and successful in whatever she does."

Katie Fitzgerald, the Minnesota FFA Star Farmer of the year, leans in to pet two-month-old calf Cletus on Wednesday, May 27, 2020, in a pasture outside her home in West Concord. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
Katie Fitzgerald, the Minnesota FFA Star Farmer of the year, leans in to pet two-month-old calf Cletus on Wednesday, May 27, 2020, in a pasture outside her home in West Concord. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

One of those decisions was to diversify her herd by adding an Angus heifer through the Minnesota Youth Beef Experience Program when she was in ninth grade. She now has 16 animals in her herd. Some of the animals she's raised she's sold for butcher. Others, she's sold to other farmers as livestock. And, of course, she keeps animals to show and for raising more calves.

In addition to her daily chores of feeding, bedding and cleaning for her herd, she makes money through contacts in the state Angus and shorthorn associations, clipping and grooming for other people. She also began a mentorship program, helping younger students with their beef livestock, so they learn how to select good animals, train them and show them.

Katie is looking forward to the fall, when she plans to attend South Dakota State University to study animal science and agribusiness. In the meantime, surprised as she was to win the Star Farmer award, she's pleased with the experience she's earned from the competition, and she believes it will help her find jobs and make contacts far into the future.

Katie Fitzgerald, the Minnesota FFA Star Farmer of the year, brings her cow Ellie to the pasture on Wednesday, May 27, 2020, outside her home in West Concord. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
Katie Fitzgerald, the Minnesota FFA Star Farmer of the year, brings her cow Ellie to the pasture on Wednesday, May 27, 2020, outside her home in West Concord. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

"It’s good for the knowledge base it’s given me," she said. "They can see the investment I’ve made in my program. It shows I know what I’m doing."

Mitchell Dinse, the other FFA adviser at Triton, said in the two years he's known Katie, he's been impressed with her drive to learn.

"In the two years I've known Katie, I caught on to the fact that once she sets her mind on a goal, she won't stop until she gets it," he said. "What struck me the most with her was her passion for the agriculture industry and her beef animals."