By January Rutherford, The Tribune
In 1948, the U.S. War Assets Administration donated 220 acres of land near the former Freeman Army Airfield to Seymour Community School Corp.
The deed required the district to use the property as a school farm, where students would learn how to plant and harvest crops by actually doing the work themselves.
Through the years, use of the farm for hands-on educational purposes dwindled, and in more recent years, the ground has been farmed by outside parties, providing some income to Seymour High School's ag department and FFA chapter.
But that's all about to change with the development and construction of a new $2 million ag-science research farm and education center.
The facility has the potential to put Seymour at the forefront statewide of preparing and training students for careers in the agriculture industry, school officials said.
"Agriculture has changed so much. We're not training kids to go out and plant the field like they did 20 or 30 years ago," said Jeanna Eppley, the high school's agriculture teacher and FFA sponsor. "We are going to be teaching kids the latest and greatest technology, training them for careers that we can't even imagine right now."
Although the number of farmers in Jackson County is dwindling, the number of jobs available in ag-related fields, including ag-science, business, technology and mechanics, is on the rise, and students with an education and training in agriculture are in high demand, she said.
"There are over 20,000 jobs unfilled in the Midwest for ag-related jobs. There's not enough people, not enough students to fill those jobs," Superintendent Rob Hooker said.
Eppley and Hal Kovert of Kovert Hawkins Architects recently presented plans for the first phase of the project to the school board, which has already given its initial approval. The board is scheduled to vote on the final design specs and give permission to go out for bids at its Feb. 9 meeting.
"We met with the ag advisory committee and school staff and administrators and talked about the elements they want to see in this facility," Kovert said.
The project is being funded through the corporation's capital projects fund, which currently has about $6 million. No money will have to be borrowed, and the building should be ready for use by the start of the 2016-17 school year in August.
Phase I includes a 12,000-square-foot, one-story, pole-barn style building that will house a large machinery and equipment training and shop area, a food science lab with full working kitchen to implement farm-to-table curriculum, a metals lab with welding booths, a classroom for animal science, restrooms, an office, storage and a large parking area.
A second phase, if approved, would add a greenhouse and aquaculture lab, a lecture/presentation hall and additional labs and classrooms.
The building will be located on a five-acre site along Fourth and F avenues in Freeman Field.
The new facility will allow Seymour to offer advanced courses in food science, plants and soils and landscape management along with courses in agriculture power, structure and technology and sustainable energy alternatives. Other courses that could be offered include diesel service technology, welding technology and precision machining.
"We will be incorporating technology and science and math classes to make this a research farm," Eppley said.
Students will conduct experiments, research and complete projects in agronomy, which is the science of producing and using plants for food, fuel, fiber and conservation through soil testing and plant tissue analysis.
"We will be better preparing them for jobs out in the field," Eppley said.
The facility also will allow the corporation to train students in welding in-house so they don't have to travel to C4 classes in Columbus.
Many classes will remain based at the high school, with the ag-science and research facility being utilized more for experiments, demonstrations and hands-on lab activities, Eppley said. Students would travel on their own to the facility as some already do for work-based internships or be bused there.
The farm also would be used for internships, FFA functions, field trips and to host elementary school Ag Days, Eppley said.
But local schools wouldn't be the only ones to use and benefit from the facility.
Besides increasing student opportunities, the farm has the potential to become a "magnet" facility for agribusiness industries in Seymour and Jackson County, such as Jackson-Jennings Co-op, Kova Fertilizer, Deer Country Equipment, Jacobi Sales, The Andersons and Rose Acre Farms, Hooker said.
Jackson County farmers would be able to use the site throughout the year to learn about new technologies and innovations through ag software and technology demonstrations, equipment/machinery demonstrations, field days, farm safety sessions, ag management and financial strategy meetings and adult education courses and technical certifications.
"We want the community to be involved in our ag program," Eppley said. "They are the ones who are going to be hiring our kids. We want them to feel like we are delivering an education to the children that they are going to be able to utilize."
Hooker said the "school farm" could be a game changer in increasing vocational and career training in the county and even attracting agribusiness to the area.
"We could see an increase in enrollment at the high school because of these programs," Hooker said. "We're really excited about this project and where it's going to take us as a school corporation."