Agriculture must look beyond traditional rural areas to recruit the next generation of agronomists, veterinarians, engineers and scientists, industry executives and educators agree. 

A newly remodeled agricultural barn on the Des Moines Public School District’s Central Campus is helping do just that by providing opportunities for students in Iowa’s largest school district to gain hands-on experience in agriculture, in particular caring for livestock.

The improvements are “truly helping students, all of our kids, see there is a future for them in ag,” said Kelsie Mouchka, Central Campus associate principal. “It truly is a conduit to the future.” 

The extensive remodeling project involved essentially stripping down the building to its shell and coating it with spray insulation, re-siding the interior with tin, powder-coating all of the gates and installing a new electric system, new ventilation system and new lighting. A new lean-to on the south side of the barn will also facilitate additional livestock projects. 

The project to bring the barn up to modern standards became a reality after Landus CEO Matt Carstens and other employees of the ag cooperative toured Central Campus and noticed the need for improvements. The Matt and Shanda Carstens Foundation, along with Landus, spearheaded a fundraising campaign to raise more than $50,000 for the barn’s renovation with the goal of inspiring the next generation of agricultural workers and farmers. Other major donors include Don and Valerie King, Albaugh LLC, Quality Liquid Feeds and Land O’Lakes, Mouchka said. 

Expanding ag’s reach

Carstens said it’s important for agriculture to reach out to students in urban districts like Des Moines.

“Right there sits our future workforce, not just those that live in rural Iowa and are in FFA or 4-H,” he said, gesturing to a couple dozen high school students on hand for a ribbon cutting at the urban campus barn last week. “We’ve got to be pulling from every town, every school district and making sure all of them understand the opportunity. Because in the end, we can’t get where we need to be in agriculture without going beyond where we’ve historically been.”

Kevin Anderson, Central Campus agriculture teacher, said the renovated barn has been well received by students. The facility is filled with animals year-round, serving as a finishing barn from August to December, a birthing barn from December to February, and a place for students to care for show animals from March to August. 

Life-changing learning

The Des Moines district is one of the few schools in the entire state that has an on-campus livestock farm, Anderson pointed out. The program draws students primarily from Des Moines public high schools but also has students from other area districts that don’t have their own agriculture program. 

The opportunity for hands-on work with livestock has been life-changing for students like Katelyn Hart and Jomar Leon. 

“This has brought me a lot of opportunities in agriculture. Before this, I was a city kid. I knew nothing about agriculture,” said Hart, a senior who plans to attend Iowa State University to major in animal science with a goal to continue on to veterinary school. “This program has opened so many opportunities and helped me network for my future.” Hart is an FFA officer and has shown goats, pigs and chickens at the Polk County Fair and Iowa State Fair, putting in significant time outside of usual school hours. 

Leon, a junior, is also leaning toward continuing his education at Iowa State University to study agriculture. As an upperclassman, Leon said he enjoys helping younger students learn about caring for livestock, and the renovated barn provides a much better environment for learning.

“It’s just helped me develop who I am,” he said. “It’s changed my life for the better because I became a better leader, more outgoing. I used to be really introverted but now I’m going out and talking to people to support ag.”

In addition to the animal barn, Central Campus also houses a large greenhouse where students gain practical skills through hands-on horticulture activities. Students also build communication and leadership skills through internships and FFA.

“We’re teaching them transferable skills that they’re not only going to use here in high school, but also when they go on to college or into the workforce,” said Anderson. “Everything we do here is about transforming them for their next stage.”