AUBURNDALE, Wis. – After a career of 41 years in agricultural education, the proof of success for Mike Sabel is in the relationships he developed with his students throughout the years.
“I have always tried to follow the golden rule from the Bible,” Sabel said of his approach to education. “Do to others as you would have them do to you. Over the years, I have developed relationships with my students that have allowed them to feel comfortable with me; to talk and share things they have gone through.”                                                                                                                                       
Sabel retired in June 2020 after 31 years as an agricultural instructor at Mid-State Technical College in Marshfield. He spent 10 years prior to that leading the agriculture departments at Mayville and Auburndale high schools.
After those relationships, being recognized by his peers for his efforts is simply the icing on the cake for Sabel.
In June, Sabel was honored with an Agriculture Lifetime Achievement Award by the Wisconsin Association of Agriculture Educators for his lifetime of work and service in agriculture education and service. At the 95th National FFA Convention and Expo in Indianapolis, Indiana, Sabel was presented with the Honorary American FFA Degree.           
As a member of the Ripon FFA Chapter, Sabel earned a complete set of FFA degrees as an FFA member. As an agriculture instructor, Sabel has been presented with both the Honorary Chapter FFA Degree and the Honorary State FFA Degree.
Throughout his tenure at Mid-State Technical College, Sabel said his program and class offerings saw a great deal of change to reflect what was happening throughout agriculture as a whole.
“There were really two different programs I worked with at Mid-State,” Sabel said. “During the day, I taught the farm operations program. Then at night, I worked with the farm business and production management program.”
Sabel said he averaged about 14 students in his farm operations program. His main focus was the evening program, where he said he worked with an average of 80 farmers each year to facilitate both classroom and on-farm instruction.
“Mid-State really covers a large geographical area and covers Adams, Wood and Portage counties as well as parts of all of the neighboring counties,” Sabel said. “The types of farms I worked with were just as varied and included more traditional-type dairy, beef and crop farms as well as more specialized vegetable crop farms; larger farms and smaller farms, organic and grazing farms and everything in between.”                                                                                                                            
Throughout his time at Mid-State, Sabel said he worked with nearly 1,000 farms throughout the area covered by the school.
“The number of farmers I have been able to help and develop relationships with over the years is really quite amazing,” Sabel said. “I have been blessed to be put in a position to have an impact on their businesses and their careers. There were 25 farmers that stayed with my program for more than 25 years.”
That ability to network and make those connections is part of the job that Sabel recalls fondly.
In response to the interest of his farm business program students, Sabel started a grazing group, with a confidentiality agreement, that was a well-received addition to the program.
“It was really more of a peer group with about six to eight members,” Sabel said. “We toured each of the farms of the participants, one a month. Before the tour, I would meet with the farm family. The group shared everything, which is why we had the confidentiality clause; they shared their financials, their goals ... the good and the bad. Other members of the group could learn from each farm and offer suggestions and constructive critiques.”
Sabel said that program lasted about 10 years, with some fluctuation of membership.
While Sabel has been retired for the past two years, he has yet to master the traditional definition of retirement.
“When I retired at the beginning of the (coronavirus) pandemic, I jumped right in, helping area farmers apply for the funds that were available through the (Coronavirus Food Assistance Program),” Sabel said. “There was so much information coming so quickly, and with all of the shut downs and unknowns, it was a very confusing time. I’m glad I was in a position to be of help to farmers in this area through that.”
Sabel’s efforts were instrumental in allowing central Wisconsin farmers to avail themselves of more than $5 million in stimulus-related funds.
“The more you show you care about people, the more you earn their trust and their respect,” Sabel said. “It goes back to that golden rule, treating others as you want to be treated.”
Sabel continues to keep up to date with many of his former students through emails and phone calls.
“One of my former students suffered a fire on their dairy operation,” Sabel said. “They knew they could call me and I would help them find a place to relocate their herd and navigate their way through everything. That is one of the most satisfying things, to know I have earned that trust and respect from my students.”
Like many educators, continuing his own education is important to Sabel.
“I continue to try and stay abreast of changes in the industry and keeping up with my own network of connections that I have built over the years,” Sabel said. “There are always new ideas coming down the road and new ways of doing things. If you quit learning and expanding your horizons, you lose the ability to grow, change and adapt.”