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North Forsyth senior makes school history with work to save endangered tree species
Mason Sheffield 1 050519 web
North Forsyth High School senior Mason Sheffield won first place in the Georgia FFA Agricultural Proficiency Awards on Friday, April 26, 2018, for his project on the eastern hemlock tree. (Photo courtesy Jordan Wallace)

Mason Sheffield stood on stage at the Macon Centreplex on April 26 in front of about 5,000 members of the Georgia chapter of the Future Farmers of America organization, and it was finally then, when he was about to find out if he would place first, second or third in the state Agricultural Proficiency Awards, that the North Forsyth High School senior finally felt nervous.

The moment was a culmination of Sheffield’s four-year project on the eastern hemlock tree, one of the most prevalent in Georgia and the Appalachian region, but also one threatened by an invasive insect. Sheffield had logged hundreds of hours of work and submitted a thorough application in the Forest Management category.

Sheffield was sure he’d hear his name for third place.

He didn’t.

Then he was sure he’d hear it for second place.

He didn’t.

No, Sheffield heard his name called for first place, making him the first from North Forsyth’s FFA program to ever win a major state level competition with the National FFA Organization.

Sheffield will go on to compete at the national competition in October.

“It was surreal, for sure,” Sheffield said. “It’s something I’ve been passionate about for a long time and been working on for a huge part of my life. Being on stage, I never thought I would get there, and then to win it, that’s even crazier.”

Sheffield’s interest in agriculture and forestry in particular can be traced to his outdoorsy upbringing. He regularly hiked and camped around Georgia and the southern Appalachian Mountains with his family growing up, and it was there that he was exposed to the vast swathes of dead eastern hemlock that have been attacked by the hemlock woolly adelgid, an insect native to East Asia.

Sheffield was drawn to the tree’s plight, so much so that he began working with Save Georgia’s Hemlocks, a nonprofit organization working to save the species, in eighth grade. When Sheffield entered North Forsyth High School, he joined its FFA chapter and discovered the Agricultural Proficiency Awards.

“I just turned what I’d been doing into the project,” Sheffield said.

Over the next four years, Sheffield worked more than 480 hours with Save Georgia’s Hemlocks and the University of North Georgia’s Beetle Lab. He’s helped on countless treatment projects and taught adult classes about the hemlocks and conservation efforts. He’s set up informational booths at festivals. He’s helped UNG’s lab with research. He even has his own hemlock “nursery” of about 60 trees that he uses to conduct research.

Sheffield had to meticulously log every activity related to the project and submit his records with his application to the North Region competition. He won, and then he went up against the winners of the Central and South FFA regions at the state competition.

On Thursday, April 25, Sheffield made the trek to Macon for his interview with the judges. The time leading up to it all was the hardest part, Sheffield said.

“It was pretty nerve wracking going into it,” Sheffield said.

But Sheffield’s nerves subsided as he started his short introduction. Then he was in his element.

“All I had to do was tell them about my project,” Sheffield said. “... I knew what I was talking about.”

When he won, Sheffield felt the weight of four years’ worth of work lifted, he said, but also gratitude for the help from his family, FFA advisers, Save Georgia’s Hemlocks and the UNG lab over the years.

“It’s just been essential to being where I am now,” Sheffield said.

Sheffield foresees a future in forestry. He plans to get a degree in agriculture, and one day, he hopes to have his own tree nursery that would incorporate hemlocks.

Before then, Sheffield will go into the Marine Corps. He’s already enlisted and ships to boot camp on Parris Island, S.C., on June 17.

That’s where Sheffield will likely be when the 92nd National FFA Convention & Expo takes place from Oct. 30 to Nov. 2 in Indianapolis, but his enlistment advisers are working with the Georgia FFA to ensure he can participate in the national competition.

Even if he can’t, Sheffield is satisfied enough by his historic achievement last month.

“Just to be up there representing Georgia, my FFA chapter and my county, it’s just a great opportunity,” Sheffield said.