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 and receive 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 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 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.”