The difficulty farmers face maintaining reliable labor each year remains a problem across the United States, and farming is not the only business facing the dilemma. Black Hills Energy is a provider of natural gas and electricity to farming operations, builders, and developers across northwest Arkansas.
Construction growth in that area of the state has been on the rise, but about three years ago, builder associations in the area recognized a precipitous drop in available labor — labor that was once provided, in part, by high school graduates.
John Rowland was hired by Black Hills Energy to handle customer relations with the builder associations. After a few meetings and a little research, Rowland found that many of the state’s high schools had dropped their shop and agriculture-related programs and classes. “I was tasked with coming up with some ideas that might rejuvenate student interest in these important programs and hopefully draw more graduates into both disciplines,” explains Rowland.
After brainstorming sessions with a few volunteers, Rowland decided to create a Build-A-Thon project that would pit high schools who still had shop classes against each other. Because there are many high school students in Arkansas who come from family farms, love hunting and being outdoors, Rowland and the other volunteers thought the students would get more satisfaction out of building hunting blinds than bird houses.
“We raised a little seed money through sponsorships, and with the help of our builder associations, the challenge was readily accepted by the high schools,” says Rowland. “One stipulation of the project was the hunting blinds had to be handicap-accessible.”
Implementing the program
Harrison High School was one of the first schools to participate in the program and build a hunting blind. “Our kids really took ownership of this project and showed a lot of pride doing it,” says Abe Clary, instructor, Workforce Woodshop, Harrison High School. “We’ve already graduated a few students with good building skills, and we’re pushing hard to increase our number of employable graduates.”
Before long, Rowland realized the schools had quite a few hunting blinds stockpiled gathering dust. Because he knew the builder associations kept close tabs on land and land use activities, he asked them to identify some farmers and landowners that might utilize the blinds during hunting season.
“We would give them the blinds free of charge, with one stipulation,” explains Rowland. “They had to allow a wounded veteran to hunt at least one day during deer or turkey season.”
Rowland started getting calls for blinds and before he knew it, the program had 3,000 acres available for the project.
Bo Norman, who owns a 300-acre cattle farm that has been passed down through generations of his family since the 1800s, offered to host a wounded veteran on his land where the blind built by the Harrison High School students was placed.
“As soon as we met our assigned veteran, Tim Hocutt, we knew he was a special soldier,” says Norman. “We bonded immediately and had a great hunt.”
Today, Operation Open Season has 34,000 acres across Arkansas, and Rowland has started receiving inquiries to build hunting blinds from high schools in Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Missouri.
“We built a website and are always looking for potential sponsors,” says Rowland. “Once we confirm a sponsor, we contact the closest veterans association for their help to identify a wounded warrior, and then assign the veteran to a property if they’re interested in participating.”
Rowland says the effort has turned into a soft rendition of the old bait-and-switch game. When the landowners get to know the veterans chosen to hunt on their property, they immediately see how appreciative they are for the opportunity. “In many cases, a one-day-hunt turns into a new friendship with an invitation to come back again,” adds Rowland.
Operation Open Season is a 100 percent volunteer program. Neither the board of directors nor volunteers receive anything for their efforts.
“When I saw the unbridled expression of joy on the face of Tim, it shot a feeling through me that no amount of money could ever buy,” says Rowland.
For more information on Operation Open Season, visit their website: http://operationopenseason.com/.