Cultivating Ag Connections

Pictured above: Chad Wiig of Cactus Farms was instrumental in helping get this project off the ground by providing insight and hands-on instruction.

By Haley Banwart 


In the heart of southern Iowa lies the small town of Leon, home of the Central Decatur Community School District. Here, students have a unique opportunity to learn where their food comes from with hands-on experiences that connect agriculture and nutrition through the school's on-site livestock barn. 

Under the guidance of Rosa Sondag, Central Decatur’s agriculture instructor and FFA advisor, it all started in the classroom in 2022 with a student brainstorming session on how to raise a steer at school. Sondag encouraged her students to pursue the idea. 
“The students worked through preparing a budget, designing a facility, and requesting approval from the school administration and the Leon City Council,” says Sondag. “The biggest hurdle was figuring out how to pay for it.” 
Thanks to the unwavering support of the local community, the students’ dream soon became a reality. Sondag received a surprise phone call from the Decatur County Development Corporation that the agency would help fund a livestock barn. A donation from GRM Networks and two grant contributions the students helped apply for soon followed. 

“The project took on a snowball effect, and with the backing of the school
and generosity of the community, the students were able to expand their
original plan to include not only a beef facility but also a swine facility,”
shares Sondag. 

 Swine Farrowing Facility Managers not only
manage feed, sanitation, and health, but also
complete artificial insemination of the sow.



Expanding Agricultural Education 

Two years before the Central Decatur livestock barn was built, students in Sondag’s animal science class had the opportunity to raise two litters of pigs off campus. A farrowing trailer was purchased through the joint application of a USDA Farm-to-School Grant with the Lamoni Community School District to teach students about the swine birthing process. Featherlite Trailers in Cresco built the first-of-its-kind design.  

Several students also enjoyed participating in the tradition of raising broiler chickens for the Central Decatur lunch program. The poultry project was made possible with the help of Lisa Porter, a local mom and community member, and Joy Evertson, the school’s food and nutrition manager. 

Twenty-three chickens butchered with an average Dressed Weight of 6.68 pounds. These chickens were delivered
to Amanda Kelley and the Central Decatur Food Service Staff.

The addition of the Central Decatur livestock facility in 2023 has enhanced the district’s unique approach to agricultural education, integrating curriculum with hands-on experiences in food, agriculture and nutrition. Plus, with everyday access to the on-site facility, more students are positively impacted by the lessons and activities facilitated through the livestock barn. 
Along with the school greenhouse, raised garden beds and new chicken house, the livestock facility creates an educational opportunity for students to identify where food comes from, discover why agriculture is important and apply their knowledge in an engaging way. 
One year after the project was completed, Sondag’s students raised 23 broiler chickens, 13 market hogs and two market steers. Their efforts yielded 204 pounds of chicken, 2,691 pounds of pork and 1,744 pounds of beef for the school lunch program.  



  Agriculture students were instrumental in working with crews to build the Central Decatur Livestock Facility.


Building Student Confidence

While community partnerships with local businesses and farmers throughout Decatur County continue to support the livestock barn, the students are responsible for looking after the animals.  

“Each semester, the students can apply for manager positions where they complete independent study courses supervising the school’s swine, cattle and greenhouse projects,” explains Sondag. “This includes feeding, cleaning and watering duties, as well as managing the budgets and putting together a balance sheet.” 
A chore chart coordinates tasks and ensures the animals are cared for during the school week, on the weekends and over the holidays. Sondag and Brian Broich, the Central Decatur transportation director, help check on the livestock over breaks.   
For Sondag, one of the project's highlights has been watching the students see the end product and enjoy the fruits of their labor. In 2023, the pork and beef the students raised were used to grill a special meal featuring steak medallions wrapped in bacon, which was served at the Central Decatur prom. 
Of the nearly 400 middle and high school students at Central Decatur, around 135 participate in the school’s agriculture program. Each student has the option to participate in the livestock projects, and many are active FFA members.  
“Animals build confidence in kids,” says Sondag. “It’s been gratifying to watch the students jump in and not be afraid to learn, research and try something new.”  
Plans for the program include raising cow-calf pairs at the barn and adding an on-site processing facility. 

Each year, two steers are purchased from the Beef Feedlot. The Lamoni Livestock Auction supported this program by donating one steer.

Photo credits: Central Trail FFA