YODER – Once upon a time, agriculture was a lifestyle for nearly everyone in the United States, unless they lived in a big city like Washington, D.C., New York or Boston. Even then, most everyone was involved in an adjacent business, like manufacturing or exporting agricultural products.
But as time goes on and technology advances, as family farms lose out to corporations and businessmen buy ranches to deprive them of their natural resources instead of use them to raise livestock, first-hand experience in agriculture gets rarer.
That’s something Southeast Schools agriculture teacher and FFA advisor Jay Clapper noticed early in his career as an ag teacher, and he’s spent most of his career trying to find ways to rebuild the connection between people and the food they eat.
“I just really love to see kids get dirty,” Clapper said. “They have to get up in the morning and do chores and just that responsibility. Plus that sense of accomplishment they get that comes from this. I think agriculture is hurting for the simple fact that we have an aging farmer population and I don’t see us doing much to get students interested.”
Clapper began his mission more than two decades ago, when he was teaching in Wray, Colo. He had heard stories of FFA chapters, back in the 1940s and 1950s, having a chapter sow, which would travel around to different families to be re-bred and would provide that student and its family with a hog to raise.
Clapper said he wanted to introduce the idea of a chapter sow to modern students - but there was a glaring issue.
“I tried to get that to go and I could never get takers,” he said. “I would get interest, but no one whatever do it. Make a long story short was because they didn’t have facilities.”
When realization hit, he knew he had to find ways for students who weren’t born into the agricultural lifestyle, whose families didn’t inherit farmland or have a history in agriculture, to “get their hands dirty.”
That’s how he came up with idea for portable farms.
A noble mission
The United States, almost anywhere east of the Mississippi River, is one big urban sprawl.
Rural areas are disappearing, and where there used to be acres upon acres of crop fields and grazing land, there are now cities.
With the disappearance of farmland, the lifestyle disappeared as well. Dairy farms turned into subdivisions governed by Home Owner’s Associations, cornfields became parking lots and silos gave way to shopping malls. According to the U.S. Farmlands Trust, 31 million acres of farmland were lost between 1992 and 2012 – 11 million of those acres were in areas considered to be the best farmland in the nation. Wyoming isn’t immune to this trend – the same organization reported large swathes of high-quality farmland in Sheridan, Platte and Fremont Counties have been lost or are at risk.
As a result, the value of farmland has sky-rocketed. Farm Credit Services of America found the price of farmland in the Cowboy State has jumped nearly 30 percent in the last decade – which makes it that much more difficult for entry-level farmers to exist.
The reason for the sprawl is global population is skyrocketing. According to a paper by Dr. Timothy Bralower and Dr. David Bice, geoscience professors at Penn State, the global population stands at more than 7 billion people and it rises by 78 million people per year. When the numbers are broken down, there are 134 million children born every year, and only around 56 million deaths.
Those numbers don’t balance. A surging global population, coupled with drastic losses in farmland, is a recipe for an apocalypse. And with every farmer that sells out, for every alfalfa field that’s paved over – that takes the next generation off the farm, and with each generation to come, that distance between the people and agriculture grows.
That’s where Clapper’s portable farms come in.
They’re built in the ag shop at Southeast. Clapper and his students repurpose old trailers into custom units that allow students to raise an animal. They have shelter, a place to store feed, an area to store necessary equipment, and they’re wired for electricity.
In short, it’s everything a student needs to learn how to raise an animal. Currently, there are two sow units being used by Southeast students.
“I don’t want kids to not be able to participate because they don’t have what they need to be successful,” Clapper said. “When the unit comes to your place, when I pull it to your place, you have everything you need. It has its own pen, we wired it so all I have to do is run a plug. It has heat in there, lights and whatever you need. Whatever you need is there.”
Clapper is in the process of building units for lambs, bottle calves, as well as mobile chicken coops. He’s even working on one for honey bees that would include a small closet for the budding beekeepers to store their protective suits.
The concept has gained some traction in the local agriculture scene. WESTCO and the Land O’ Lakes Foundation donated $10,000 to the Southeast FFA chapter to help with the units. He’s also gotten help from Farm Credit, the Wyoming Pork Council, and Panhandle Co-op.
And he’s not just working on units to raise animals. He’s got a sweet corn unit that prompted Pioneer Seeds, through Brett and Linda Meyer, to donate $1,000 worth of Round-Up-ready corn seed.
“It’s a four-row corn planter, it plants the sweet corn and we’re considering popcorn as well,” Clapper said. “It is designed to be really easy to be pulled up to someone’s place, unhooked, pulled with a tractor and then the student can plant.”
He’s also working on a whole mobile greenhouse.
“Another thing that I’m looking at is a trailer that would be used for a greenhouse,’ Clapper said. “I’ve had students in the past start pumpkins. We had a couple students do pumpkin projects and they’ve actually done quite well with those. If they wanted to start them at home, or even use the greenhouse that I have here, they can get a little bit bigger than normal. Instead of planning in May, they would have a plant that’s already six or eight inches tall and they get a bit of a jump on it.”
Clapper’s mission is a noble one. If the units can get students interested in production agriculture, it would be a victory in the battle to save agriculture and, by extension, the planet.
“I think a lot of people get quite a sense of fulfillment when they raise animals and things like that, but I also think it just gives us an appreciation for the simple fact that to raise food, there’s a process to getting food on the table,” he said. “I think so many people have a horrible perception of what agriculture really is. I think this gives them that real world sense of being a part of the industry.
“I enjoy creating opportunities like this and it is fun to see students succeed and fail. I think it’s going to be pretty interesting.”
The portable farms teach more than just how to raise an animal.
Clapper estimates that since he began teaching at Southeast, his students have raised no less than 10 sows, 75 calves, and has had several students take advantage of a program that gives them 10 free chickens, which they raise, and then butcher with Clapper’s help. There have been more projects, too – and each and every one of them teaches students things they can’t learn from a textbook.
“This is real,” Clapper said. “When you farrow out some pigs and she has 12 babies and three die at birth and you feel like a failure, that’s actually really good. Losing pigs is fairly common, you barely keep that many alive. And they have the choice of how they market. There’s just so much potential to this thing.”
Teaching these life lessons is Clapper’s passion. It also goes hand-in-hand with the FFA’s mission of allowing every student a chance to get some hands-on agricultural experience and the portable farm concept has just made it that much more accessible for every student.
“Trying to get the students into these experiences is something I’ve been trying to do my entire career. I consider it part of my job,” he said.
The potential for the portable farm concept could have a small role in helping solve bigger issues, whether it be the physical balance between population and food supply, or to help with closing the generational gap between an agricultural society and today’s urban sprawl. The important thing, according to Clapper, is that the kids get the opportunity to produce something real.
“Really, the sky is the limit,” Clapper said. “Twenty-three years ago, I had students raise mice for food for reptile places. They had a market. We only did it for one year and they made a little bit of money. They got to experience that.
“I don’t know that it really matters what we’re raising. It’s just ‘Can the Southeast chapter provide students with the tools and resources they need to experience this?’ These are tremendous opportunities.”