Western ND barn opens new doors to 4-H, FFA youth interested in livestock
HETTINGER, N.D. — Tatum Fitch was in fourth grade when her classmate's encouragement to join 4-H brought her to a livestock show. She watched other kids showing sheep and goats, and she was hooked.
"So then I told my mom, 'Mom, I want to show a goat,'" she recalls.
Fitch's family member had owned livestock in the past, but Fitch lived in town — a problem for many 4-H and FFA members intrigued by the idea of owning and showing livestock.
Enter the C.M. Cook Youth Development Project 4-H and FFA Livestock Barn, a unique facility that provides space for kids to keep their livestock projects as well as mentoring from fellow members. Despite its long moniker, members, parents and leaders tend to call it "the barn" or "the club barn." And "the barn" has become a gateway to activities in which some kids never would have seen themselves.
The barn used to be a receiving area for hogs bound for market, explains Chris Schauer, president of the Adams County Fair Board. More recently, it was owned by Dr. Bill Austin, a radiologist from Hettinger who has worked throughout the country while maintaining a ranch operation in the Hettinger area.
Chris Schauer approached Austin about letting the fair board rent the building for town kids to house livestock. Austin did them one better — allowing them to use the barn rent-free. In 2018, Austin donated the barn outright to the Adams County Youth Development Foundation, a nonprofit arm of the fair board, but has continued to contribute to upkeep. The barn is named for an agricultural mentor of Austin's who also formerly owned the barn.
"As of right now, it's been 100% free to anyone who wants to use it," other than feed and animal costs, Chris Schauer explains.
Set off a frontage road just south of the railroad tracks, the barn isn't showy and likely doesn't attract a second glance from passersby. Inside, it's fairly dark, the main light source coming from the open side of the barn, where goats, sheep, cattle and pigs roam in and out.
But as commonplace as it appears, the barn has played a big part in the lives of many 4-H and FFA members looking to find their place in the world.
"This barn has been a godsend for a lot of kids in this community," says 4-H leader Joy Laufer.
Ronda Schauer, agriculture education teacher at Hettinger Public School and president of the county 4-H leaders council, says Adams County isn't alone in having such a facility, but few have worked out the way the C.M. Cook barn has. Leaders have counted more than 20 members who have raised about 150 animals in the past eight years. Some have even begun shaping their futures off the experience.
Now about to enter her junior year of high school, Fitch has raised sheep, pigs and, of course, goats, which continue to be a passion for her. While this year she has a pig at the club barn, she had to branch out to another facility to house her growing goat herd. She breeds goats to sell to other 4-H and FFA members and sees the potential for broader sales and shows in her future.
"If it wasn't for this club barn, I don't think I would be where I am in the goat business," she says.
Seeing kids leave the barn because they want to expand or do things their own way is a proud moment for leaders, Chris Schauer says. "That's a success story when they want to do that."
While 4-H and FFA have roots in teaching students about production agriculture and research advances, both programs have moved into far broader programming. 4-H offers projects across nearly any interest. FFA includes lessons and education across all of agriculture, with contests and learning opportunities stretching beyond traditional production areas and into mechanics, marketing and more.
But for an "ag-based community" like Hettinger, the livestock programs continue to attract young people, say Ronda Schauer and Joy Laufer.
That's how it was for Joy's son, Oscar. She took him to a 4-H meeting five years ago, and he learned he could buy and house a pig at the barn. Since then, Oscar also has had sheep and goats, and this year, he has a steer. He's considering a venture where he feeds out pigs at the barn for local consumers.
"That's been the love of his life," Joy says.
She's watched her son mature as he found his niche in livestock. For Oscar, watching the personalities of the animals and learning from the other members has been a life-changing experience.
"This place, when I come down here, relaxes me. It's just — the friendships you make, the leadership skills you develop, just make it an overall fun time," he says.
Ronda Schauer has seen kids who start out with a small 4-H project at the barn develop elaborate FFA Supervised Agricultural Experiences with their livestock. And Laufer says that by showing, the kids are able to meet other 4-H and FFA members from around the state and serve as ambassadors of Adams County and Hettinger.
Chris Schauer knows the importance that kind of start can be. He once was a city kid in Hettinger with an interest in agriculture who got a start with animals and rodeo from other people. He received bachelor's and master's degrees in animal science from North Dakota State University and a doctorate from Oregon State University. He now serves as the director of the Hettinger Extension Research Center and the interim director at the Dickinson Extension Research Center.
Having a similar impact on the lives and futures of youth is the goal, Chris Schauer says. Whether kids end up becoming veterinarians or agronomists or just more knowledgeable about where their food comes from, the leaders consider it a success.
Other counties who want to develop similar experiences should keep the focus on youth development and leadership rather than on winning shows, Chris Schauer says. He also says being open to multiple species helps kids explore their interests.
Helping each other out
The youth who house animals at the barn aren't just getting a place to keep their livestock; they also have a support system to help them learn. The kids take turns feeding, and the more experienced members are happy to help out the younger members with lessons in training, fitting and showing. Chris Schauer says Southwest Grain has helped facilitate feed deliveries to make things work smoothly.
Members like Sydnee Wolff, a coming third grader who is in her third year of Cloverbuds, the early 4-H program for children 5 to 8, say they've learned from the older members about how to show their animals and how to set their feet, among other lessons.
"You have to be nice to them. You can't be mad," Wolff explains.
Chris Schauer says the barn also has served as an inspiration to get more town kids to keep animals elsewhere, providing a "multiplier effect" in the number of kids in the community raising livestock. And, as more kids have gotten involved, it's brought in more people to the county fair. Now, the fair board is $180,000 in to a $200,000 fairgrounds infrastructure package, and Chris Schauer credits the barn with providing momentum.
"A dying fair doesn't build a $200,000 addition to their fairgrounds," he says.
For Fitch, the barn has helped direct her future plans beyond developing her goat herd. She also wants to go to Dickinson State University and then North Dakota State University and pursue an agriculture education degree. Her time with younger members has played a part in that decision.
"I definitely love teaching them how to get better at showmanship and get better at showing their animals properly," she says. "I love just being able to connect with them and just watch them grow as people and watch them grow into leaders."
Ronda Schauer says the kids are still kids. They get into water fights or mud fights ("or more than mud"), she says. But they settle down when it's time to work and help each other.
"This group of kids is just elite," she says. "The teamwork and the leadership that comes out of this barn is unbelievable."