Brainerd student is FFA Star in Agribusiness

A senior at Brainerd High School, TJ Graves has had a different dream than the average teenager. He dreams of growing his Supervised Agricultural Experience lawn care business into a career.

TJ Graves, 2014 Minnesota Star in Agribusiness, stands with his grandmother, Lillie Markley.

ST. PAUL — Some teenagers dream of traveling to all seven continents. Others want to be the president of the United States. Some can imagine being a star in a hit Hollywood movie or climbing to the top of Mt. Fuji one day.

Then, there's T.J. Graves. He was named the FFA Star in Agribusiness at the 85th Minnesota FFA Convention.

A senior at Brainerd High School, Graves dreams of growing his Supervised Agricultural Experience lawn care business into a career, as if it isn't growing already — when Graves started, it was only for his neighbor. Now, he serves 28 customers and 47 properties, on both residential and commercial land.

What's in a typical day for Graves? That's his favorite part; there isn't one.

"My business allows me to be flexible, and because of that, I can spend my time involved in FFA as well. As long as the lawn gets mowed, the customer is happy," said Graves.


Graves even expanded his lawn care business to include snow removal.

"This would be our second winter that we just finished,'' Graves said. "Last year, I only had one truck with one snow plow. I bought a new truck this year, and now I have another snow plow that I can hook on my dad's truck, too."

It takes a lot of work. Most mornings after it snows, Graves and his dad wake up at 2 a.m. to go out for their customers.

"I have always been to school on time, though," he said with a laugh.

Graves gives some credit to the National FFA Organization for receiving two Supervised Agricultural Experience grants. SAE grant applications are due each year in November, and the funds are distributed based on the career pathway that best fits their work enterprise.

Graves received his first grant in 10th grade. He used it to buy a lawn vacuum for better yard maintenance. Graves received his second grant just this year and used it to invest in a mobile printer and laptop. The new technology allows him to give a quote to a potential client during a site visit.

"I really like them both,'' he said. "I like my snowplows because I can sit in a climate-controlled truck. After a season, though, you get tired of one or the other. Right now, I am ready to get mowing. I just bought a new lawn mower, and I am excited to get to that."

Since Graves' first state convention, he knew he wanted to get his state degree. A couple years ago, one of the star finalists also had a lawn care business, and TJ wanted to be that guy standing on stage. His diverse business allowed him to qualify for the Minnesota FFA degree and win the regional star in agribusiness competition. Before he knew it, he was "that guy" standing on the stage as a finalist, but this time, that guy was the Minnesota FFA Star in Agribusiness winner.


"It didn't hit me a lot at convention; it hit me more that I was Star in Agribusiness when I got home,'' he said. "People were congratulating me, and I realized that this was a really big deal. It was really neat because our senator even called me. She made me wait a little bit, though, because she had to go vote on a bill. I thought she would be in her office giving me a call, but no, she was on the Senate floor."

Graves hopes to attend Central Lakes College in the fall to pursue a hands-on education in landscaping and heavy equipment operation. Graves wants to expand his business so he has a crew of employees doing the same things he does now.

"I still plan on being in FFA and getting my American FFA degree in a couple of years — maybe to even be the American Star in Agribusiness. I will be around to help with stuff in our chapter, and I'm still going to be in Brainerd, which is nice," said Graves

As for Grave's big dream?

"My dream job would be to be on a farm somewhere,'' he said. "We used to have a 30-acre horse farm. I would love to get back there again.''

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