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Field Experience: Professors reflect on agriculture and teaching

Ryan Barfield works at the Farm

Ryan Barfield, senior animal science major, works at the Illinois State University Farm.

Over the last 40 years, the field of agriculture has seen sweeping changes. From large-scale farms to new technology, keeping pace with the changes—and how to teach them—has been the goal of faculty in Illinois State University’s Department of Agriculture.

Four professors of agriculture, Kerry Tudor, Pat O’Rourke, Randy Winter, and Rick Whitacre, recently retired from Illinois State after 130 combined years of teaching. They sat down to reflect on the changes—and the constants—they have seen in agriculture and education during their time on campus.

They pointed out that the traditional picture of the small, diversified family farm is more the exception than the rule these days. Today’s American farms are much larger and more specialized in crop or livestock production. Because of consolidation, there are fewer farmers. “A greater number of students today come from non-farming backgrounds,” said Whitacre, who came to Illinois State in 1977. “In past decades many students already had some kind of experience in agriculture. Today, only about 35 percent of our students come from farm backgrounds.”

image of Kerry Tudor

Kerry Tudor

To accommodate the shift, introductory agriculture classes in the department have evolved. “Because a lot of the students don’t come from an agriculture background, we’ve placed a greater emphasis on basic agricultural terminology and concepts in our introductory courses,” said Tudor.

Students today are much more technologically savvy, which fits in well with the changing demands for technology in the fields. The professors noted that they have gone from classroom exercises charting commodity prices using graph paper and pens to following the markets online. “Not to mention when the PowerPoint slides for my class stopped working once, a student was able to save the day by pulling up the slides on his iPad,” said Tudor, who started at Illinois State in 1987. “We put his iPad on the document camera in the classroom so everyone could follow along.”

image of Randy Winter

Randy Winter

All four noted that the agricultural economy has had some serious ups and downs in recent decades, with a farming crisis in the early 1980s and a big rebound in the 1990s. Throughout the ups and downs, technology and business practices continued to evolve. “The development of drought and pest-resistant plants through genetic research has really increased crop yield,” said Winter, a Department of Agriculture faculty member since 1981. He noted that the boom in ethanol production also had a profound economic impact. “It’s been a real game changer because the rise in the price of corn has also had a huge impact on the price of other commodities. That’s been part of a second ‘golden age’ of agriculture.”

The department’s enrollment reflected the fluctuations of the agricultural economy over the years. While student numbers were lower during the tough years of the early 1980s, today enrollment continues to increase along with the rapid growth of agribusiness.

image of Rick Whitacre

Rick Whitacre

The department has kept pace with the changes and growth in agriculture, and offers undergraduate sequences in agribusiness, agriculture communications and leadership, agriculture education, agronomy management, animal industry management, animal science, crop and soil science, food industry management, horticulture and landscape management, and pre-veterinary medicine. Graduate sequences include agribusiness, agriscience and agricultural education, and leadership.

Professors say expanding career options in agriculture have attracted a much more diverse group of students, including those from traditionally underrepresented groups. “Students are aware of the increased job opportunities,” said Winter. “For example, a growing number of women are choosing areas like agribusiness and horticulture.”

image of Pat O'Rourke

Pat O’Rourke

According to O’Rourke, who has been part of the Illinois State faculty since 1983, one of the constants professors observed throughout the decades is the high quality of students in the Department of Agriculture. “The students are just as talented and dedicated as they were 30 years ago,” he said. “They’re very focused on their studies and their careers.”

A consistently strong group of students reflects the department’s student-centered approach. “As a department, we’ve always had a great relationship with our students,” said Whitacre. “Classrooms and offices in the Ropp Agriculture Building are all pretty close together, so we get to see the students quite a bit, both in and out of class.”

All four agree that the tradition of providing students a broad knowledge of agriculture will continue, as well as the hard work of faculty to stay abreast of developments in an ever-changing and increasingly tech-driven field. “Faculty are very focused on helping students understand the current direction of the agricultural industry,” said O’Rourke. “Illinois State will always be interested in seeing students succeed and go on to meaningful careers.”