Recently retired Ayersville High School ag teacher Don Hammersmith spent the last three and a half decades farming, both on his own small farm in Defiance County and in the classroom.
“Teaching is kind of like farming,” he said, “not with corn or beans, but with kids. You get out there, plant some seeds and give them the opportunity to grow. It’s very rewarding to see.”
With that kind of approach, it’s easy to see why Hammersmith was the recipient of Nationwide’s Golden Owl Award.
Agricultural teachers play an essential and selfless role as they work to prepare future generations for successful careers. Since 2018, Nationwide has partnered with Ohio Farm Bureau and Ohio FFA to bestow the Golden Owl Award to recognize the importance of these educators and to honor their work.
Hammersmith was a vocational agriculture instructor and FFA advisor at Ayersville High School in Defiance, Ohio, for 35 years. After graduating himself from Ayersville, he received a degree in agriculture from Wilmington College. Hammersmith said he never expected to end up in a classroom.
“Initially, my goal was to farm,” he said, “and I continue to do that.”
However, while serving as Ayersville’s football coach after college, he realized he enjoyed working with kids. After earning his teaching certificate from Ohio State University, he found a home at his alma mater and a way to share his love of agriculture with the next generation.
Ag education evolution
Hammersmith acknowledged that when he began his classroom journey, the curriculum was focused on animals, plants and natural resources. He also included helpful, hands-on skills like welding, small engine repair and plumbing.
While he continued to share those crucial skills, lessons in recent years began including a lot more technology, electronic record keeping, as well as introductions to environmental science and biology. The Defiance County Farm Bureau member said he was surprised to find that today’s students needed help with ‘old skills’ like how to read a ruler, since many rely heavily on phone apps.
In class, Hammersmith would introduce a problem and ask students to review their notes and do some thinking to come up with a solution. Instead of providing easy answers, he encouraged students to keep working until they figured it out, something he acknowledged frustrated a few. He’s pleased to note that several have returned after graduation to express appreciation for that lesson in determination.
“I tried to equip all my students to think through issues and make reasonable decisions. I tried to impress upon them the value of hard work in whatever you do,” he said.
Although Hammersmith credits agriculture as one of the most important industries because of its diversity, he acknowledged that the majority of his students may pursue other occupations. As such, he focused on teaching skills that can transfer to other areas of life. For example, working with spreadsheets and budgets applies to an agriculture business, but the same holds true for other businesses and for households.
“I hope I gave them skills that help them in whatever they pursue,” he said, noting that in addition to careers in agriculture, former students have become welders, engineers and plumbers. “One student even went on to start his own trucking company.”
Hard work pays off
Few understand the volume of work that ag educators spend throughout the year, and particularly in the summer.
“We work most of June, half of July, and most of August at the fair, contests and conventions,” he said. “We work hard throughout the year, but unlike other teachers, don’t get much of a break (comparatively).”
He counts himself blessed to have such great support, both from the local community, other ag teachers and especially the Ohio Farm Bureau.
“I truly appreciate all they’ve done for agricultural educators,” Hammersmith said. “I wouldn’t have had a job without that support. It was a humbling experience (to win the Golden Owl Award). Our ag teachers across the state work so hard. It’s really an honor to have won.”
Now that he has more time in retirement, Hammersmith plans to continue working on his small hobby farm, putting some of his own lessons like how to improve water quality and soil health into practice.
Hammersmith was chosen from a list of 10 exceptional ag educators from across the state. He was formally recognized as the Golden Owl Award grand prize winner during the Ohio FFA State Convention earlier this year. In addition to the title, Hammersmith received the coveted Golden Owl Award trophy and Ayersville High School received a $3,000 Nationwide-funded donation to further its agricultural education efforts.
2022 Golden Owl Award
Nominations are currently being accepted for the 2022 Golden Owl Award. To nominate an Ohio agricultural educator who has made a significant impact on the lives of youth, visit the Ohio FFA website. Nominations are due by Dec. 31, 2021.
To learn more about Don Hammersmith, listen to his interview on Our Ohio Weekly.