A week before beginning harvest last year, Cole Riggin’s father unexpectedly passed away, leaving the 21-year-old with the task of managing a 10-man crew each day.

“It was kind of a big slap in the face,” said Riggin of Pittsburg, Kansas. But he quickly shared how he was able to immediately begin running the family operation along with his mother, Mary Riggin.

“I had been watching my dad for the first 20 years of my life, and tried to follow the example he set for me, and do what he did – and it’s worked out,” Riggin said.

From his youth, Riggin worked alongside his dad in the family’s custom harvesting business. The experience is what’s behind the Riverton FFA member’s nomination for a national American FFA Star Award.

Riggin is one of four American Star finalists in Agricultural Placement in the country. Winners will be announced at the national convention in Indianapolis Nov. 1.

“He is an amazing young man. What he’s done already in his young life is not something that most kids experience. I’m very proud of him,” his mom Mary Riggin said.

He credits her for her support in the operation that began 41 years ago: “My mom helps keep everything running smoothly. She’s the brains behind the operation.”

A 2016 graduate of Riverton High School, Riggin’s numerous high school FFA awards were based on his SAE (Supervised Agriculture Experience), which is his employment at Riggin Farms.

“Cole was our chapter’s star in ag placement, the Southeast District FFA Star in ag placement, and the State Star in ag placement as well. He was a recipient of the proficiency award in ag services on the chapter, district and state level, and a national finalist during his senior year,” said Jacob M. Larison, agricultural education instructor and FFA advisor for Riverton High School in Riverton, Kansas.

Each May to October, Riggin Farm’s custom harvesting work begins in Texas with wheat harvest, moving to Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and eventually Idaho. The crew harvests wheat, corn, barley and safflower with four 8230 Case IH combines, two 9330 Case IH tractors pulling two grain carts and eight semi-trucks.

The family returns home by October to start their own soybean harvest in the second half of the month.

Then, comes their maintenance work, which takes four months.

“There’s a lot of machinery and a lot of moving parts. We spend close to a month on each machine,” Riggin said.

His younger brother helps, and they have a crew.

Riggin learned in August that he’ll be representing Kansas at the FFA convention.

“Being named an American Star finalist is an extremely rare honor to achieve,” his advisor Larison said.

He’ll rely on his experience in the family’s business when talking to judges in Indianapolis.

The past year taught him to make a plan for what needed to happen each day. It consists of talking to clients, deciding which fields to harvest first, and keeping everyone pointed in the right direction.

“I learned to set priorities, establish daily goals and put trust in my family and employees,” he said. “I never knew how much my dad did until this past year – whether it was talking to new people looking for work, coordinating with current customers to get their crops harvested, or calling ahead to the next site to reserve a place for our house trailers, I never knew just how much stress there is when you’ve got people calling who want you there – the next day.”

Knowing that his dad overcame the same farming challenges – keeping both crews and combines at different fields, dealing with equipment breakdowns and balancing it all – has given him the inner strength to propel Riggin Farms.

“Yes, there have been challenges and times where you wondered why you’re out here, and then there are times where it’s a lot of fun and you enjoy what you’re doing,” he said.

Amy Hadachek can be reached at editorial@midwestmessenger.com.

Amy Hadachek is a freelance writer who lives on a farm with her husband in North Central Kansas. She's also a meteorologist and storm chaser. Amy can be reached at editorial@midwestmessenger.com.