Donation to fund school agriculture and career development staff

Kristine Goodrich, The Free Press, Mankato, Minn.
·3 min read

Apr. 27—MANKATO — A grant from the leader of a regional pork production company will expand opportunities for Mankato Area Public Schools students interested in agriculture and other trades.

Mary Ann Christensen of Christensen Farms is funding four district staff in three new positions for the next five years.

The new staff will start next school year and will support the district's new agriculture, food and natural resources career pathway and help the district develop more student career development initiatives that emphasize in-demand career fields in the region.

"We're excited about Christensen Farms coming through with such a sizeable gift and also a challenge saying: 'Get yourself going developing a sequence of courses that will launch kids into high-demand workforces,'" Supt. Paul Peterson said.

A second high school teacher will join the district to teach agriculture, food and natural resources classes. The additional teacher will allow the district to expand the number and variety of classes to meet high student demand, Peterson said.

After having no agriculture-related programs for several decades, the district hired Ethan Dado in 2019. He is now the district's sole agriculture, food and natural resources teacher and divides his time between East, West and Central high schools. He also leads the FFA chapter.

The grant also will fund two career development specialists and a career pathways coordinator.

The specialists will help middle and high school students identify career goals and coursework to advance toward those goals, according to a district announcement.

The coordinator will lead the agriculture pathway and the development of new business partnerships, student internships and other student career development opportunities.

The dollar amount of Christensen's donation has not been specified. She has committed to fully funding the salary and benefits for the new positions for the next five years and that cost will be determined once candidates are hired, said Stacy Wells, the district's director of communications.

Christensen is chair of the board of Christensen Farms — one of the largest family-owned pork producers in the country. The company is based in Sleepy Eye and has 1,000 employees and 1,500 contract partners across the Midwest, according to its website.

Christensen also is co-founder of Big Ideas, a New Ulm-based nonprofit that works to expose youths and adults to trade career opportunities through classes and a mobile trailer with trade skill simulators.

It's not the first time Mary Ann Christensen has helped a school district add staff. A 2019 donation to the Sleepy Eye School District is funding an agriculture teacher and a counselor, according to the New Ulm Journal.

Christensen was not available for interviews Tuesday following the Mankato district's announcement of her donation. But in a statement she said her company and family are excited to partner with the district to expand agriculture opportunities.

"Our collaboration with Mankato Area Public Schools represents an integral part of our ongoing effort in pursuit of excellence in agriculture in the Upper Midwest," she said.

Wells said district leaders hope the grant inspires additional businesses to support other school initiatives.

"We're excited about this public-private partnership," she said.