Southwest Ag invests in the future


The cost of college keeps going up, and so does the demand for skilled workers.

As a result, students and families are looking to Career and Technical Education (CTE) in high school for more affordable ways to acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to find a career and make a living in 21st century America — and many businesses and industries are eliminating the requirement of a college degree for some of the positions they hire.

“The world has kind of changed the last couple of decades, and I really feel like those types of programs and career paths are a signficant area of opportunity for a lot of kids,” said Garry Hillyer of Southwest Ag in Bayfield. “There are so many kids out there anymore that aren’t going to get much of a return on their money from a traditional four-year college education.”

That’s a reality Garry and his brother, Rich, have become all-too-familiar with as co-owners of Bayfield’s largest non-governmental employer.

“Rich and I both enjoyed those types of programs that were available to us when we were in school, and there’s so many pieces of what goes on there that are applicable to our business. There is also a bigger chunk of kids these days that aren’t going to go to a traditional college than there used to be,” Garry stated, noting that many students are opting to attend trade schools or enrolling in one or two-year programs to earn a certificate.

Remote Car Construction

“Getting that kind background and direction is a better avenue for so many of these kids than trying to go to a four year university, and for rural communities like this, it is also a way for some of those kids to not have to leave the area as well,” Hillyer said.

Fortunately, the CTE classes offered at Bayfield High School have evolved to meet this need and they are preparing students to pursue different options after graduation, but opening the door to new opportunities can be pretty expensive.

“The CTE classes might give students a different direction or avenue to go down after school. There’s a lot more available now than there was when we were in school, but there is a lot more technical stuff, and those types of programs are pretty cost-intensive per student compared to a math class or even an art class,” Hillyer admitted.

That realization prompted Garry and Rich to donate $25,000 to the Bayfield School District last month, and they asked Superintendent Leon Hanhardt to use the funds to bolster the Career and Technical Education programs at Bayfield High School.


“Rich and I talked about it, and we had a particularly good year so we told Leon we wanted to do a more sizable donation this year,” Garry explained. “We kind of left it pretty open-ended, but wanted to make sure it is spread out so each of the programs in that department get something out of it. We asked Leon to work with the program heads and see what they needed.”

Hanhardt began his career as a CTE teacher, and is all-too-familiar with both the benefits and challenges presented by career and technical education.

“This is an incredibly generous gift to our school and students, and we are really grateful to the Hillyer family and the team at Southwest Ag for this sizable donation,” Hanhardt said. “These programs are more important than ever before, and gifts like these help ensure our students have a variety of options after graduation.”

Garry and Rich have lived in the region since they were children and graduated from Bayfield High School, so they are well aware of how important these types of donations are to the schools and the community.

“We grew up in the area, and this community has supported us for a lot of years,” Garry stated. “We always thought we wanted to respond to that in kind, and we’ve been actively involved in sponsoring a lot of stuff at the schools for as long as I can remember.”

Students Sawing

After graduating from high school, both Hillyer brothers went to Fort Lewis College to play basketball — Rich for four years and Garry for two. After receiving their degrees (Rich at FLC and Garry at the University of Arizona) they both made their way back to the family business that has been a cornerstone of the Bayfield economy since 1986.

They have been committed to supporting their hometown and its schools since taking over day-to-day operation of the business from their parents 20 years ago.

“There aren’t a lot of significant businesses in the Pine River side of LaPlata County, and we were the first significant donor when they set up the Bayfield Education Foundation,” Garry recalled. “We try to put our money into something that is going to affect the youth because that is where you get the most bang for your investment, and can do the most good.”

That is particularly true for the career and technical education programs — those that specialize in the skilled trades, applied sciences, modern technologies, and career preparation.

Learning CPR

CTE programs are generally thought of as career-oriented courses, and many provide students with the opportunity to gain work experience through internships, job shadowing, on-the-job training, and industry-certification opportunities. They provide a wide range of learning experiences that cover a wealth of different career tracks — from automotive technology and construction to plumbing or electrical contracting. CTE courses can open doors to careers in agriculture, architecture, culinary arts, fashion design, filmmaking, forestry, engineering, healthcare, personal training, robotics or veterinary medicine — to name a few.

At Bayfield High School the CTE offerings include Ag Education through FFA, leadership training through Family, Career and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA), carpentry and woodworking through Skills USA, health science classes and a Future Health Professionals Organization (HOSA), Technology Student Association (TSA), and a Trades and Training Program.

“I’ve been active in the CTE side of it, especially with some of the ag stuff, partly because there’s a lot of stuff in our business that translates into what the CTE programs are trying to build there,” said Garry, who has served as a member of the school district’s CTE advisory board for several years.

CTE programs are designed to be more responsive to the changing needs of small rural communities like Bayfield because they provide education and background that is sorely needed by local industry, and the programs are most successful when they are built through relationships with businesses and individuals in the community.

“The sort of partnership we have with Southwest Ag is so valuable to school districts like ours,” Hanhardt said. “Donations like these are obviously greatly appreciated — and this one is going to make a tremendous impact for our students — but the expertise and input we get from the involvement of local business people like Garry and Rich is priceless also.”

Guitar Construction

The Hillyer brothers believe their family business benefits from their philosophy of “giving back” to the community because they know the long-term success of the business will depend on contributions of future employees — many of whom will be graduates of BHS, including their own children.

“We’ve got a third generation involved in the business now, and we’ve had some other students come through our doors. We’ve had a few internships through the program BHS has too,” Garry said, noting that he thinks the CTE programs offer real-world knowledge that goes beyond career fields as well.

“I’ve been happy to see that they are trying to expand their business program offerings at the high school. That’s a fundamental part of education that a lot of kids sorely miss out on,” Hillyer nodded.

Hanhardt said that he and the team at Bayfield High School are already working out how to make sure the most recent gift from Southwest Ag can have the most impact for the district’s various CTE programs, and he noted that such donations often provide immediate benefits for local students.

Girls in Ag Class

“The Career and Technical fields evolve so rapidly, and it can be hard to keep up with the changes, especially on limited budgets,” Hanhardt explained. “When local businesses make these kinds of investments in our programs, it allows our courses and instructors to catch up with some of those changes.”

While Southwest Ag has donated consistently to programs at Bayfield schools, and to the Bayfield Education Foundation, they have also contributed to other community organizations, including the boys and girls club, Pine River Library, the senior center and big brother/big sisters.

“We support stuff throughout the four corners region, but the vast majority of what we do is here in the local valley,” Garry said, indicating that the company’s philanthropy even extends down the road to he and his brother’s former rivals in Ignacio.

“I couldn’t have done that back in high school because it was quite a rivalry,” Garry smiled.

“That was back when Bayfield was quite a bit smaller.”

Glueing a Project Together