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AGRIBUSINESS

Watch now: With agriculture jobs growing, Central Illinois educational options expand

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BLOOMINGTON — With her father, grandfather and other family members all having gone through 4-H, Callie Yoder never doubted that she would be involved in the organization too.

“My passion for it came very early on,” said Yoder, who wrapped up her 11 years as a student in the organization last year. She is now a 4-H leader for the Danvers Industrial Youth Club, as well as the 4-H director of foods and nutrition for the McLean County Fair.

Like Yoder, Lauren Toohill grew up in an agricultural family. The recent Heyworth High School graduate was president of the school's chapter of the National FFA Organization, formerly known as "Future Farmers of America." 

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Callie Yoder poses with one of the dairy cattle she raised as a 4-H member. She is now a 4-H leader and director of foods and nutrition at the McLean County Fair, the largest 4-H fair in the state. 

Both young women represent an example of the kinds of students being targeted for growing educational and outreach efforts in Central Illinois. Agriculture businesses, advocacy organizations and educators say they are trying to train students like Yoder and Toohill for agriculture jobs and technology that do not yet exist.

Leaders in the field have also seen more job openings than people to fill them, even as the industry is expected to grow regionally and nationally.

The Illinois Department of Employment Security expects farm jobs in its Economic Development Region 3, which is centered around Peoria and McLean counties, to grow from 6,811 jobs to 9,038 jobs between 2018 and 2028. The projection also anticipates a decline in non-farm jobs in that same period. 

Nationwide, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates there will be an additional 78,000 wage and salary agriculture jobs between 2020 and 2030. Agriculture jobs were tied for the fourth fastest-growing sector in the U.S. economy between 2010 and 2020. 

Neither of those measures include all the jobs tangentially related to agriculture, such as in ag finance or food manufacturing. IDES also anticipates significant growth in food manufacturing jobs between 2018 and 2028 in the Peoria-McLean County region. 

Heartland Community College hopes its new agriculture complex can help it meet the needs to fill those jobs, reflecting the importance of agriculture industry in the community.

“The role of a community college is to be reflective of the needs of the community,” President Keith Cornille said. “… In our particular community, agriculture and agriculture-related industries are a huge part of our economy.”

Keeping local talent

Heartland Community College plans to break ground on its new agriculture complex later this month. College officials hope the new facility will help them expand Heartland’s agriculture offerings, which in turn can help keep young talent like Yoder and Toohill in the area.

“We need to do everything we can to keep the young talent right here in our community,” said Cornille.

There are around 1,300 K-12 students involved in agriculture in some way in Heartland’s district, he said.

That includes students like those in Kara Barling's agriculture classes at Heyworth High School, where she also leads the school’s FFA club. 

Last year, Barling had 122 students across six classes, with only 10 to 15 of them coming from farm families. She maintains classroom space in an outbuilding of the school and a greenhouse. She tries to put that space to good use while giving students a chance to learn skills unique to the classes.

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Heyworth FFA students work on a planter while getting their test plot ready in late May. The test plot is located off of U.S. 51 between Heyworth and Bloomington. 

Heartland’s new agriculture complex will help provide some of those same sorts of hands-on experiences at the college level, Cornille said.

“We don’t really have the type of laboratories that are conducive to the type of learning that needs to occur,” he said. “(…) The complex will allow us to really have the types of laboratories and classrooms that we need.”

That includes features like test plots, greenhouses and a mechanic bay large enough to pull in farm equipment like combines. The complex will not include livestock.

Hands-on experience is a central part of ag education at Lake Land College in Mattoon, too, Agriculture Chair Ryan Orrick said. The college offers seven agriculture-related majors and five certificates.

“All of those, they don’t just go to school for two years and sit in a classroom,” Orrick said.

Barling said her classes cover the breadth of the agriculture industry, from basic farm mechanics to intros to animal and veterinary science. That mirrors the program Illinois State University students go through, said Lucas Maxwell, director of the agricultural education program there.

Non-transfer students spend their first two years in the program learning about the various parts of the agriculture industry, Maxwell said. The students' junior and senior years focus on developing them as teachers.

The ISU Agriculture Department, which offers 10 majors including agriculture education, looks forward to working with Heartland as the college expands its programs, Maxwell said. He is excited for partnerships like pipeline agreements for students to transfer from the Heartland programs to ISU.

Cornille said the community college’s goal is to blend its services with what is already being offered in the area, including by ISU. That includes offering certificates and additional training. 

“We don’t want to replicate things; we want to supplement things,” he said.

Filling company needs

Evergreen FS is one of the area businesses likely to benefit from expanded agriculture programs at Heartland, HR Manager Christie Rabideau said. The Bloomington-based co-op, which is a part of GROWMARK, hires across a wide array of agriculture services, including operations, elevators, turf and office jobs.

That wide variety of jobs is something that Cornille feels not enough students know about as they consider careers.

“Sometimes I think young people don’t understand all that agriculture and agribusiness offers them in their career,” he said.

Rabideau estimated that around 75% of the positions at Evergreen FS require either a high school degree or a two-year certificate or degree, exactly the kind of program that Heartland provides. Evergreen FS has worked with Heartland in developing programs, Rabideau said, especially the agronomy and precision agriculture certificates.

“Both of those are very relevant to what we do and the hiring needs we have,” she said.

Representatives for Evergreen FS and Archer Daniels Midland Co., another major agribusiness employer with a large Central Illinois presence, said they have had some difficulty filling openings. 

The need for training for agricultural workers is a major driver behind Heartland’s expansion, Cornille said.

Orrick, in Mattoon, has also seen that need. For every graduate coming out of Lake Land's agricultural program, he said, it feels like he hears from five businesses looking to hire someone. 

Lake Land has focused its agriculture program on listening to the industry about what businesses need so the college can help fill those jobs, Orrick said. That includes working with an advisory council with representatives from industries of the various programs Lake Land offers.

“We’ve tried to be more intentional about what we offer in the classrooms to (reflect) what the needs of industry are,” Orrick said.

There is also a shortage of agriculture teachers in the state, a problem not unique to Illinois, Maxwell said. The shortage has even prevented some districts from starting programs they planned to add.

“The need for agricultural educators right now is immense (…) we simply do not graduate enough individuals to fill the positions that are open each year,” he said.

Some of the jobs in the industry require flexibility and a willingness to do whatever is needed around a farm, said Brian Bangert, general manager at Funk Farms in McLean County. 

There seems to be a need for more ag education in general, he said, as people lose their connections to the farms that grow their food. He has started an agricultural tourism center at Funk Farms to help address that need, and hopes Heartland’s complex can also help build that understanding in students.

“We need better opportunities for kids to get a better understanding of agriculture,” Bangert said.

Archer Daniels Midland Co., which has its North American headquarters in Decatur, hires people from a variety of educational and career backgrounds, which includes but is not exclusive to those from agriculture programs and companies, said head of talent acquisition Megan Bole. 

The food processing company, which Fortune ranked as the 38th largest in the country by revenue in its 2022 list, has also put resources into developing early career pipelines, like internships, to bring in employees soon after they graduate from college, Bole said. 

“(That allows students) to really come inside, have a peek under the tent and understand the kind of rich, varied career they can have here,” Bole said.

Early career hires from ag programs are important additions to the company. They help keep ADM on “the tip of the sphere,” Bole said.

Orrick estimated that just around 10% of Lake Land’s agriculture students go directly into “plows, sows and cows” farming.

Jobs in agriculture can appeal to a wide array of interests, Cornille said.

“If you love chemistry, there’s a job for you in ag; if you love tech, there’s a job for you in ag; if you love mechanics, there’s a job for you in ag; if you love being outside, there’s a job for you in ag; if you love driving a truck, there’s a job for you in ag,” he said.

Some Central Illinois businesses have taken a more direct approach to training the workers they need, in cooperation with education institutions. For example, Lake Land College has a John Deere tech program, Orrick said.

The students work with a dealership that sponsors them, which could include help with tools, internships or tuition.

Community colleges are another place ADM is looking to expand pipelines, Bole said. 

“We’re really keen to strengthen those relationships,” she said.

Building life skills

Rising eighth-grader Claire Kuipers in LeRoy said her school has just a few families that show cattle, including her own, and she is one of a handful of FFA members at LeRoy Middle School who live on a farm with livestock.

Like Yoder and Toohill, 13-year-old Kuipers is getting an early start in agriculture through FFA and 4-H activities. Her projects have included showing hogs, photography, LEGO building and sewing. The most significant has been showing Angus cattle.

Participating in 4-H and other show competitions has given Claire a chance to make friends from near and far. “She’s got friends all over the county, all over the state, all over the country,” said Krista Kuipers, Claire's mother.

The responsibility of taking care of the cattle every day has helped her grow and mature, too, said Claire, who has been participating in 4-H programs for five years. She started off with her parents doing much of the work for her, but now she does it all herself. Her younger brother is now starting to go through the same process.

Over in Danvers, Yoder enjoyed going from being a student herself in 4-H to now seeing her students grow and mature.

“It’s pretty awesome to watch kids grow and become better leaders, and speakers, and people in general,” she said.

The organization goes far beyond the main agriculture projects that many people may think of, said Katie Buckley, McLean County 4-H youth development educator. Some of the other projects include foods, sewing and even robotics. McLean County has the largest number of county 4-H members in the state, with around 900 members.

Agriculture has changed a lot in recent years, with new applications for technology like drones and autonomous vehicles, Buckley said.

“What we’re doing now isn’t going to be what we’re doing probably five or 10 years from now. We’re looking into the future. We’re preparing youth for jobs that don’t exist today,” she said.

Jenny Webb, member engagement manager at the Illinois Farm Bureau, attended Heartland before the college added agriculture programs. She is excited to see the college's new complex, especially looking forward to its use as a community event location as well as an education center.  

Webb’s work focuses on the state farm bureau's Young Leaders program, for members ages 18 to 35. She works with Vanessa Wright, youth and collegiate program coordinator, who more directly handles the Collegiate Farm Bureau.

CFB has 12 chapters across the state, including at ISU, Illinois Central College, Lincoln Land Community College and Lake Land College.

Wright and Webb hope to expand the appeal of the program beyond majors directly connected to agriculture. Students pursuing areas from political science to environmental studies can also find jobs in the industry, they said.

Buckley, the local 4-H leader, also talked about the wide variety of jobs in agriculture, and the need in the industry for people who may not have studied agriculture in school but instead have backgrounds in areas like chemistry, communications or economics.

“It’s going to take a wide variety of educational backgrounds to fulfill the need for agricultural jobs,” she said.

At Illinois State, Maxwell said he and Assistant Professor Jay Solomonson are trying to recruit beyond the traditional pipeline of students who were taking agriculture classes in high school. The graduate program has also grown immensely in the past few years, from just a few students to more than 25.

“There is a place for everyone in agriculture; there is a place for everyone in agriculture education,” Maxwell said.

He and Orrick both noted that they have seen more women entering agriculture. Lake Land’s program split close to evenly between men and women, Orrick said. The ag education program at ISU is now majority women, Maxwell said.

The Illinois Farm Bureau also works closely with agriculture educators across the state with initiatives that include its Ag in the Classroom program, which works mostly on curriculum development and teacher training, said statewide director Kevin Daugherty. Some of the county organizations do more school visits. 

Ag in the Classroom also reaches kids younger than 4-H and FFA programs do, all the way down to kindergarten. 

Reaching the children at that age is important because many of them have not necessarily had direct experience with agriculture, despite it being the largest industry in the state, Daugherty said.

“Most of our students are generations away from being on the farm,” he said.

A better understanding of agriculture can help people understand where their food comes from, Claire Kuipers said.

“I think people need to start thinking, ‘Oh, it’s helping you learn more about the background (of agriculture)’,” she said. “(…) You have to think about how people have to raise these cattle, people have to feed these cattle.”

Contact Connor Wood at (309)820-3240. Follow Connor on Twitter:@connorkwood

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Four McLean County 4-H members received $1,000 scholarships from Illinois 4-H, representing some of the 45 students across the state honored with awards this spring. A fifth student was honored for her leadership in agriculture.

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