Mike Burns was the forestry teacher at Pocahontas Coun-ty High School for 29 years and during that time his forestry teams were a force to be reckoned with. In recognition of his work with students and with the national competition, Burns was awarded the Honorary American FFA Degree at the 2014 National FFA competition this fall.
The National FFA Organization presents the award to individuals who advance agricultural education and FFA through outstanding personal commitment.
Some forestry teachers begin their FFA career as students. For Burns, there was just one issue – trees.
“I went to Charleston High School,” he said. “[It] was one city block and there were four trees on each corner. That was about as close to the woods as I got in high school. It wasn’t much.”
When he came to Pocahontas County, things changed. Burns began training forestry teams and hit the ground running with a win at his first competition.
“I had the first forestry team to go from West Virginia,” he said. “They started it in ‘86 and we won the first one and we were second place in ‘87. Then, from ‘88 to 2000 we won.”
Burns quit competing in 2000 when he became soccer coach – a less stressful extra curricular activity. He succeeded in becoming a soccer coach but not in losing the stress.
“It’s a tremendous amount of work [preparing a forestry team],” he said. “People don’t realize how much work it is because everything I did when I was working with students was on their time. It was never during class. It was Sundays, and Mondays and Wednesdays, after school.
“Part of the reason I got out of it when I did was that my kids weren’t interested,” he continued. “They’d been to so many practices and national conventions with me and they were playing soccer at the high school, and they needed a coach for that. I couldn’t do them both, plus after fifteen years, getting a break from it was good. You have to be better every year. You have to raise the bar every year because everybody wants a piece of you. It gets stressful. But coaching soccer was stressful, too. I did not have a stress free profession.”
Although he was no longer competing, Burns was still a part of FFA as a member of the National FFA Forestry Career Development Event committee.
“The committee, we meet two, three times a year,” Burns said. “It’s not just go out for a competition and that’s it. We met and worked on curriculum because all the competition, it has to parallel the curriculum. It has to be pretty generic because programs all over the United States are going to do different things. I wrote all the curriculum for West Virginia’s forestry stuff, too. It pretty well parallels what’s being taught in class.”
In his 29 years of competition, Burns has seen the field grow exponentially, as well as a rise in number of students participating.
“It’s one of the most popular competitions out there,” he said. “I think there were forty-four, forty-five states competing. The first year I went, I think there were twenty-eight states. It’s grown every year. My first year, I think there were 18,000 kids, maybe 20,000 total for the whole convention. This year, there were 65,000, so you can see how it’s grown.”
Along with growth, Burns has seen changes in rules that would have been game changers for several of his teams.
“What’s really kind of interesting with [Scott] Garber’s group is when we competed in 1993, they only counted the top three scores out of the four boys,” Burns said. “Last year, they started counting all four scores. I’ve been an advocate for all four scores forever, but Garber’s team would have won first place if they had counted all four scores. We came in second to Arkansas because they’re top three guys had a point or two more than our three, but if you had added our fourth, we had fifteen points over them.”
While the awards are great, the success of former students is greater for Burns. He has tried to keep track of former team members and is proud to hear a lot of them are in the forestry business now.
“Out of those kids that I had on those forestry teams, I would say probably seventy-five percent of those boys and girls are in the forest industry today,” he said. “That was my reward for all that work was that those kids are in the business. Garber went on and worked for the Forest Service before he came back and took my job. There’s a lot of these kids, they all work in the industry some way or another.
“John Burks down at Hillsboro, he’s running the mill over at Richwood now,” Burns continued. He was the first number one individual from West Virginia. His team was second place, but he was the number one individual overall.”
Throughout his career, Burns had 22 state titles – 14 FFA and eight 4-H; and seven national titles – six FFA and one 4-H. There were 10 national second place teams – six FFA and four 4-H.
“Nationally, I had eight number one individuals,” he said. “In 1996, we had one, two, three and four. That’s the first year they gave out scholarship money and we took all the money home with us.”
With so much success in his career, there shouldn’t be room for regrets, but Burns does have one.
“I was wanting to hold on for thirty years but it just didn’t happen,” he said. “I felt this was the time to roll on out of there and that’s what I did.”
At least Burns can rest assured that he left the forestry department in the capable hands of his former student.
In his five years at PCHS, Garber has led the teams to two first place wins at the state level and one second place in nationals.
Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org