In the past few months, motorists passing by Gervais High School on Highway 99E may have noticed a conspicuous blue barn rising up from the fields.
A deep cornflower blue to match the school's colors, the barn first began as a concrete footprint laid down in March and was erected over the course of the spring. Though the building may have taken a few months to construct, its roots go back far longer.
"This is actually the final piece of the puzzle for our land lab that we dreamed up seven years ago," said Brent LaFollette, president of Friends of Gervais FFA. "We came up with a plan, and we wanted to incorporate all the different aspects of agriculture represented in the valley."
Horticulture, agriculture, livestock — this was once the lifeblood of Gervais. But as the years have passed, many students in the Gervais School District have come and gone without ever experiencing the type of farm life that helped create the city. LaFollette and Friends of Gervais FFA want to bring that education back to schools and have been working diligently to make their vision a reality.
The barn is only the most recent and most visible of the steps the group has taken. First there was the greenhouse next to the high school, then the community garden in the fields next to the new barn. The barn itself is the final coup de grace, a fully functional livestock barn that will be utilized not just by members of the FFA, but also in the classroom at the high school next year.
"What they envisioned is growing the program more toward animal science," Gervais teacher and FFA adviser Megan Dilson said. "We've added new courses this year. We have animal science and veterinary medicine that's going to be offered for the upcoming fall year."
Dilson came to the Gervais School District a year ago to take over the FFA program from departing director Karie Kelley. Dilson arrived from the Roseburg School District to the rich agricultural hotbed of the Willamette Valley, where Gervais sits in the dead center.
But while the city itself is surrounding by farm land as far as the eye can see, the generation of students attending school in Gervais have mostly been raised in the city itself. Instead of growing up on large plots of land, these students live close to each other in densely packed neighborhoods. The result is that much of the student body in the schools never get the opportunity to experience the kind of agricultural livelihood that helped build the city in which they live.
"The number of students who have an agricultural background is very low," Dilson said.
The barn adds a crucial dimension to the school's agricultural program, giving students and FFA members an opportunity to learn about livestock, animal husbandry and the work that goes into raising an animal from just a few weeks old to market. Incoming Gervais senior and FFA President Ali Cullett is just one of those students who stands to benefit from the investment in the school's agriculture programs.
"I'm a country girl who was accidentally born in the city, but my grandparents have a farm, so I go out there and work a lot," Cullett said.
Cullett has been raising a market ewe to show in the Marion County Fair in July, using the temporary livestock pen that was built several years ago. As the ewe has grown, so has the barn just a few dozen feet from the small pen. By this time next year, Cullett and her classmates will be able to raise more livestock in better conditions with all the equipment needed to produce a champion-quality animal.
"It's really exciting," Cullett said.
Of course the barn has not come cheap. More than $30,000 was raised to help pay for the project, which was supervised and contracted out by Kevin Fredinburg of Santiam Barns. Add in another $16,000 for the greenhouse and several thousand more for equipment, such as a horse trailer to move livestock to the fairs and weigh-ins, and the price tag comes in at more than $50,000 invested into the program.
The school district paid to improve the gravel access driveway heading out to the barn, but the rest of the money came from local investors who have been donating to the FFA at the program's annual banquet each year.
"All the funds for this, the greenhouse, everything we've done, came from our alumni organization and the fundraising banquet that has been supported by about 20 different companies, local farms and families that have attended our banquet every year," LaFollette said.
But those companies have a vested interest in making sure the next generation of students has every opportunity to succeed in the fields of agricultural and technical sciences, as they will be the future employees, managers and owners who will be the people who shepherd agriculture in the Willamette Valley into the middle of the 21st century.
And as the investment into the Gervais School District grows, so too does the interest from parents and students.
"A lot of community members, a lot of parents from the middle school are getting really excited," Dilson said. "They want to push their kids into the ag program."
And while the new barn is an adequate size to handle the school's livestock needs at the moment, ideally, interest in the livestock program will eventually grow to surpass the barn's capacity. Fortunately, they're hoping for just such an occasion and can expand the barn to meet growing demand in the school for raising livestock.
"This building was engineered to move out that way," LaFollette said, pointing toward the highway. "We're anticipating growth. We're ready for it."