Student becomes teacher as Mertz retires, Stockton takes over Ag program

By Roxie Murphy, Staff Writer
Posted 9/13/23

BELLE — ​After breaking the record for the longest-serving agriculture teacher in the Maries County R-2 School District, Chris Mertz bid farewell to his position at Belle High School (BHS) at …

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Student becomes teacher as Mertz retires, Stockton takes over Ag program


BELLE — ​After breaking the record for the longest-serving agriculture teacher in the Maries County R-2 School District, Chris Mertz bid farewell to his position at Belle High School (BHS) at the end of the 2022-23 school year to pass the torch to former student Trent Stockton.

“I have been an ag teacher for 30 years, 18 of which were in Belle,” Mertz said.

Mertz, who grew up south of Rosebud and attended Owensville High School, briefly worked in conservation before taking a high-ranking job with Farm Bureau.

“Then the ag teacher position opened up in Owensville,” Mertz said. “It was a huge pay cut and I told me wife ‘give me five years to get it out of my system.’ I worked there for eight years, then left to work for a seed company in Illinois.”

But as it turned out, Mertz would go back to the classroom.

“In 2000, 2001, Matt Ketcherside called me and said Bourbon was starting an agriculture program and Matt was friends with the superintendent,” he said. “He convinced the superintendent that I needed to start that program.”

Mertz went to Bourbon to begin the agriculture program. After two years, he convinced Michelle Koelling, who was the agriculture teacher in Steelville, to take the job, and he took her position in Steelville. Mertz said he made the move because Koelling was from Bourbon and was ready to go home.

“When Belle’s (ag teacher position) came open in 2005-06, my kids were in Belle,” he said. “We moved halfway through the school year and I have been there ever since.”

Since teaching in Belle, many of Mertz’s former students have become agriculture teachers.

“I taught with Jennifer Bacon for one year,” he said. “When her daughter was born, she moved to the middle school. Teaching ag is a time constraint. Natalie Koch is doing an awesome job in Steelville, she runs the greenhouse and does something similar to Mareta (James, ag teacher and former student) does. Ag teachers in the area get together to compare notes. I convinced Michelle Koelling to come to Belle because the kids are amazing, even if it is a poor little school district. It isn’t what you have it is what you do with what you have and that is why I stayed for 18 years.”

Mertz said agriculture has always been important to the small community, which was one of the first 20 school districts to have a recognized agriculture program.

“We started the state-recognized agriculture program in 1929,” Mertz said. “We went to research the history of our chapter and went to the Missouri Historical Archives and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) for the Ag Education Department. We have a list of every ag teacher since 1926 when they started ag classes. The ag program didn’t exist in Missouri until 1929.”

It was the state’s complete list of Belle agriculture teachers and their years with the district that caught Mertz’s attention and made him realize the district’s average agriculture teacher only stayed three to four years and the record was 10 years.

“Hillary Bush’s son told me when he was in FFA (Future Farmers of America) he had four different teachers in four years,” Mertz said. “I was curious about the record. It was 10 years and I figured I would beat that.”

After 13 years with the district, Mertz found his potential replacement in former student-turned-teacher, Stockton. Mertz was helping to run a Speech Team event at the high school and asked for assistance from the Hermann ag teacher to help them learn to use a new plasma cutter table. While Mertz ran the speech event, Stockton learned the ins and outs of the new plasma table. He later showed Mertz how to use the table.

“I said, ‘Hey, Trent, you should be an ag teacher someday,’” Mertz said. He remembers Stockton’s response being, “No, really?”

He told Stockton that he should take over for him someday, and the rest is history.

“I wasn’t necessarily ready to leave (my position),” Mertz said. “I could have gone several more laps, but when you know that you can retire whenever you want, you don’t let the little things bother you. I wanted Trent to take over for me and when he said he was ready to come home, I went to (Superintendent Dr. Lenice Basham) and said ‘I think I am ready to retire and I have a suggestion for my replacement.’ They interviewed several applicants and hired Trent. He legit got the job on his own.”

So at the end of the 2022-23 school year, Mertz let his intent to retire be known, as well as announcing his replacement.

“I am hoping Trent will beat my record,” he said, adding that he has the same hope for Mareta James who also helps teach ag courses. “Mareta has a good shot of breaking that (longevity record, too).”

If there is one thing Mertz doesn’t regret, it is making the jump into teaching.

“I have had a very rewarding career working with amazing kids and great parents,” Mertz said. “So many people don’t realize that agriculture and FFA isn’t just production. It is speaking and writing and something for everybody. It has got to be diverse. It is the largest industry in U.S. That’s the fun part. I had fun. Any person who has ever become an ag teacher enjoys it. I also tell contest teams to enjoy it because if you enjoy it you are going to be good at it.”

Since his retirement, Mertz has started a business, Mertz Of All Trades, LLC, coined by fellow BHS teacher. As a new business owner, Mertz uses the skills he taught to his previous ag classes, constructs home improvement, electric, plumbing, and other skills he taught in his ag structure classes because when on a farm things may have to be done quickly.

“I am glad to see Mareta and Trent both are here,” Mertz said. “I will come back at the 100-year anniversary. It is in good hands.”

Stockton began the first week of school teaching new students about the safety measures that should be taken in his welding class before they started on projects in the second week.

“It’s been nice coming back home,” Stockton said. “I graduated from here in 2018 and spent two years at State Fair Community College before transferring to Mizzou. In high school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I love every aspect of ag.”

Stockton said he plans to remain competitive against neighboring schools.

“A lot of the contacts I have made are people I was in school with or I had as teachers before,” he said. “They say they are excited because I am here.”

In time, Stockton hopes to grow the ag program, including the welding opportunities.

“I hope to continue the progress of this program,” Stockton said.

Students are just getting back into the groove from the forced introverted aspects that came with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Kids have lost a lot of their competitiveness,” he said. “I have had a list since July of people who are interested in coming in here and helping me teach.”

One of Stockton’s first orders for his advanced sixth hour welding class is to begin building bollard posts that are to be set out in front of each entrances at each building. The safety pillars are expensive. Mertz submitted a bid at the end of the last school year for ag classes to make the posts in an attempt to keep more district finances within the community. The board of education accepted the bid.

The class will also be making deer stands and gates.

“Many kids don’t know how to weld,” Stockton said. “I’ve got a really good group of kids, and they understand I am not Mertz.”

On Sept. 7, Stockton had his class building and welding skid steer plates that may be sold to help support the program.

“I had a skid steer plate at home they could use as a pattern,” he said.

Being home means that assistance is only a phone call away if he needs it.

“It’s hard to beat your hometown,” Stockton said. “I’d like to stay.”


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