Ag Department growing strong 100 years later

When Myron Erdman studied agriculture in the 1940s, he learned how to caponize chickens, castrating young birds with the swift move of a sharp scalpel.

“I wanted to take courses I thought would help me out. I doubt they teach that anymore,” he said, chuckling as he sat at the kitchen table in his rural Chenoa home.

Now in his 80s, Erdman is a former Illinois State football player who left the University after a couple of years because his mom needed him back on the farm. His father had died when Myron was only 5 years old.

He remains on the family farm, an 800-acre property that’s grown to include nearly 500 cows and 9,500 hogs. His son, Mark ’80, works with his dad to ship out 32,000 pounds of milk daily. That’s enough for 3,720 gallons. Milk is tested when it’s picked up at the farm and tested again when it arrives at the plant, making it “the safest drink people can get,” Mark said.

That’s just one of the many governmental regulations that didn’t exist generations ago. Now tails are shortened in order to keep the animals cleaner, and sand is used for bedding because it’s bacteria resistant. The herd is routinely vaccinated and if a cow is treated with antibiotics, the milk is tossed.

When Myron grew up, he milked cows by hand twice a day. Now machines milk 20 cows at once. It’s still a long day. Mark’s up by 5:30 a.m. and doesn’t head to bed until about 10 p.m., after a glass of milk.

The father-son team epitomizes the strength of Illinois State’s Agriculture Department, which over the past century has evolved to prepare professionals for a field that’s expanded and become more complex since the days of pulling a plow.

“It’s one of those industries where no matter what the economy’s doing, it continues to grow. With the green movement, the Agriculture Department is more important than ever.”

Today the department offers a revitalized curriculum that includes two new sequences: pre-veterinary medicine and agriculture communications and leadership. Department Chair Rob Rhykerd knows that’s a draw for students, few of whom come from family farms anymore—although if you walk the hallway and ask where they’re from, most students are only one or two generations removed from farming.

There are now about 300 students, which is a 50 percent increase over the past five years. In the past year alone Rhykerd has watched enrollment jump by 15 percent.

Two-thirds are transfers from a community college, and nearly one-third are women. That’s a big change from the early years as well, when only one or two women took an animal science class.

The steady rise in enrollment is attributed to aggressive recruitment by faculty, modernization of facilities, outstanding research opportunities at the University Farm, the revamped curriculum, and the department’s rich reputation.

“Students who are interested in production agriculture, either crops or livestock, know they’re going to get what they need here. It’s not just driving tractors anymore,” Rhykerd said.

Senior Jacob Zosky heard his parents talk about growing up on a farm, which influenced his decision to study agribusiness. He was also attracted by the job opportunities.

“I did my homework before joining the program,” he said. “It’s one of those industries where no matter what the economy’s doing, it continues to grow. With the green movement, the Agriculture Department is more important than ever.”

Kristin Apple ’10 went from being an English education major to completing a double major in ag business and ag industry management. She is pursuing a sales career. “The great thing about agriculture is it’s so diverse. There’s something for everybody,” she said. “Agriculture touches everyone’s life every day.”

College of Applied Science and Technology Dean Jeff Wood couldn’t agree more. He’s convinced future graduates will be moving a world away from rural communities where everybody waves.

“Our students in the next two decades certainly won’t be going back to a farm. They’ll have to have an understanding of foreign cultures, and will be as likely to work in Shanghai as Chicago, in Buenos Aires as St. Louis,” Wood said.

The shift represents another chapter in the department’s history, which has undergone significant change since its start in 1911. Woods joined in 1985 and can attest to marked progress in just that short time.

He remembers cows flicking their tails and stirring up dust on the dirt floor of the indoor livestock arena in the Ropp Agriculture Building. As a junior faculty member he was asked to create a microcomputer applications course, but there was no computer lab. Twice a week he’d make the rounds, borrowing faculty computers.

There have been other challenges over time, including two attempts to end the program. President David Berlo threatened to abolish it in 1971 with the simple explanation, “I have no support for agriculture.” After receiving a flood of angry letters, he dropped the proposal.

In 1991 the department was again threatened with elimination, this time by the Illinois Board of Higher Education. “It was hard to understand and hard to deal with,” Wood said. “Here we are situated in the heart of the heartland. We’re surrounded by all things agriculture and have the most productive farms in the world in a state with a rich tradition of agriculture.”

President Thomas Wallace supported the department, along with industry partners, alumni, and colleagues at other universities. Together they fiercely opposed the plan, testifying to the importance of agriculture and the role Illinois State played in it.

“It was a rough time, and those of us who were here are glad to have it behind us,” Wood said. Today there is no question as to the need for the program, which is meeting a growing need.

Every Monday job opportunities are announced and posted to a bulletin board, but students aren’t crowded around it. That’s because there are more jobs for agriculture majors than there are grads.

The demand is not going to disappear, as food production will need to double in the next 50 years. Eating habits will change as poor nations move from primarily vegetarian diets to including meat. “All of this will place increased demands on ag production and doing it all in a sustainable fashion,” Rhykerd said. “It’s an enviable time for our graduates.”

External forces will also shape the department’s curriculum. Wood predicts the next generation will need to be prepared to tackle the renewal of natural resources, including water, soil, and atmosphere, as well as the demand for fuel.

“Those are very important topics that people are thinking about not only statewide but globally,” Wood said. People will become increasingly concerned with where their food comes from, and will continue to support local foods and organic farming, he believes. One example of that is the fact that there are 4,000 farmers’ markets throughout the country.

Whatever the future brings, graduates such as the Erdmans have no doubt ag students will get from Illinois State the education needed to succeed as the industry fluctuates. The Erdmans have endured some tough times, especially in recent months. When the economy soured, so did milk prices.

The value of the dollar, foreign markets, and a long supply chain all took their toll. Consumers cut back on their grocery bill, dropping fewer milk products into their carts and skipping the cheesy appetizers when eating out.

“I look back and see people struggle making ends meet, and the cows keep us going,” Myron said. “Milk prices are down, but you keep going. Last summer we were paying to go to work. Not many people will do that. But if I had to do it over again, I’d do the same thing.”

Myron’s passion for farming led him to accept several industry posts over the years. He served as one of the directors of the National Dairy Board, appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. Mark was appointed to the board this year.

Mark also judges livestock. He became interested in it while at Illinois State. Mark joined Clarence Mohr’s livestock judging team, an experience that took him across the country. More recently he’s been to Ireland and Scotland as a judge. He also traveled to Poland, the Czech Republic, and the Ukraine while completing the Illinois Agriculture Leadership Program.

Yet he’s always ready to return to the family farm, which now includes a third generation, as two of Mark’s nephews have joined the operation. Waneta (Callahan) Erdman ’47 is the matriarch, married to Myron for 61 years. The two met at ISU. They have two daughters, Ann and Linda, who married dairy farmers.

“It’s been a way of life for us. It’s been good to us. It gave us a healthy family,” Myron said. It’s also created a legacy that will continue well into the future. For as his son noted, “You don’t retire from farming. You can’t retire from farming.”