Creating their own classroom

Kaitlyn Bonzer, second from right, West Fork High School FFA advisor, teaches students how to care for and raise hogs. The livestock are housed inside an old horse barn that the students recently renovated and converted into an ag learning center.
Kaitlyn Bonzer, second from right, West Fork High School FFA advisor, teaches students how to care for and raise hogs. The livestock are housed inside an old horse barn that the students recently renovated and converted into an ag learning center.

FFA isn’t just for farm kids anymore. But being a “town kid” exploring agriculture has its limitations — namely hands-on experience.

“Kids who live in town aren’t exposed to livestock production,” says West Fork High School FFA Advisor Kaitlyn Bonzer. “I can teach all day in the classroom and not really convey what it means to work with animals.”

The West Fork High School FFA Chapter is overcoming that obstacle by converting an unused barn on the edge of Sheffield into the West Fork Agricultural Learning Center. The West Fork School District includes Sheffield, Chapin, Meservey, Thornton, Rock­­well and Swaledale in north-central Iowa.

The horse barn that once housed Tennessee Walkers sat unused for a decade before the Sukup family offered it to the FFA. The school district pays $300 per year rent from its ag education budget. The project is managed by both a district barn committee and a student chapter barn committee.

Barn renovations have stretch­ed over four years, paid for by FFA fundraisers from cheese and meat sales to tractor pulls.

Walls have been removed, windows replaced, interior walls finished, and exhaust fans and heaters installed. Many of the fixtures were donated by local farmers. Paint, posts and gates add to the improvements. A dilapidated shed has been removed, and a new windbreak planted.

“We’ve worked hard, and it looks really good,” says Morgan Steenhard, a senior FFA member involved with the project since its early days.

More plans are in the works. The chapter owns beehives that may be moved to the property. “We’re looking at how they overwinter to see if that will be practical,” says Bonzer. Adding a garden near the bees could enable pollination experiments.

Fencing the 2 acres that accompany the barn could provide pasture for sheep or goats. A new lean-to would provide added storage.

While there is much yet to do, Bonzer, in her first year at West Fork, says the facility, along with the chapter’s two crop test plots, enticed her to the district.

“Like most people, I looked at the facilities when I was considering the district,” says Bonzer. “Ag instructors all over the state are looking for ways to grow students and their chapters. With all it has to offer, West Fork is a goldmine.”

She says ag instructors are also tuned to ways to increase student participation in ag and ag projects. The learning center not only offers students hands-on animal experience, and Ag Day exposure for young kids, but farm management experience.

The chapter pays three students, one of them a barn manager, to take on the responsibility of day-to-day operations.

As barn manager, Carter Nueh­ring considers the opportunity invaluable. Building maintenance, morning animal feeding and nightly farrowing checks all come with the paycheck. “I’ve learned a lot this past year,” says Nuehring. “Mostly, I’ve learned responsibility.”

One of those “town kids” who has always been highly involved in agriculture, Nuehring has been able to gain the experience he needs to develop his interests. The West Fork senior has plans to head to college for a degree in livestock science or ag business before taking off for “a different state where there are large cattle lots where I can work with livestock.”

“Ag is a major industry in this area,” says Bonzer. “And this is exactly the type of experience we should be providing to prepare our kids for the future."

For Bonzer and the West Fork FFA, the opportunities seem endless. “This gets kids to look at the big picture. It can take a long time to be where you want to be. If you want to be successful, you have to work at it over time. And you have to pay for it,” says Bonzer.

“At this point, we’re like a well-oiled machine in motion,” adds Steenhard.

That well-oiled machine in­­volves more than just students and animals, adding another valuable lesson.

“There is incredible community support,” Bonzer says of what is known as an “FFA farm community” that Sukup Manufacturing Co. calls home. The advisory committee keeps the project practical, while offering an opportunity for kids to work alongside community members in making plans and decisions.

“Committee members contribute ideas and ways to get things done,” says Bonzer, “as well as giving the kids encouragement and support for their ideas. We’re always looking forward to the next project, the next improvement, and learning as we go, all while reaping the benefits of a community collaboration to support agriculture.”

Queck-Matzie is a freelance writer from Fontanelle.

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