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Illinois Country Living

Illinois Higher Education for the Ag Industry

Illinois Higher Education for the Agricultural Industry
More Than Plows, Sows & Cows

By Lisa Rigoni

While there may be some generations who say a college education isn’t necessary to run a farm, it’s more likely that today’s generation sees the value and the need.

Mike Sauber of Virgil, Ill., grew up on the family farm. “I come from a family farm in Northern Illinois. We operate a custom hog feeding operation that has around 8,000 head capacity. We also have a small feedlot operation that has approximately 600 head capacity,” Sauber said. “The other portion of our farm consists of raising corn, soybeans and wheat on roughly 4,000 acres.”

The family farm has been Sauber’s focus and continued to be his focus where his education was concerned. “I chose Agricultural Business at Illinois State University because it offered me the opportunity to study all aspects within the ag department. This was important to me because I did not attend school with the intent of finding a job outside of my family’s farm,” he said. “My family has a diverse farming operation. Because of this, it became necessary for me to gain knowledge in multiple aspects of agriculture.”

This new ISU graduate is taking over the livestock portion of the Sauber Farm after graduation. He said that eventually he will be incorporated into the crop portion of the business, prior to his father retiring.

Of those, many offer a variety of ag-related programs. Four of the major agricultural universities include: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Illinois State University, Bloomington; Western Illinois University, Macomb and Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Ag studies run a wide gamut of concentrations that continue to draw students, and the students come from varied geographic regions and backgrounds in and around the state.

Universities Share Perspectives on Trends in Ag Education

Dr. Bill Bailey, Western Illinois University’s Department of Agriculture Chair said, “One-third of today’s freshman come to campus with an undeclared major. Our department reaches out to those students to let them know what we offer. It really isn’t just plows, sows and cows, as some might think in reference to agriculture. If a student is concerned about our environment, or global hunger, for example, ag studies could be a good fit with their goals.”

Agronomy and Animal Science are among the offerings at WIU. While the school doesn’t have a graduate program, Bailey said they do encourage students to pursue further education. “The ag industry needs quality minds, well-educated people to continue research and teach at the university level. Particularly, students who are familiar with farming are needed. You see crop scientists who know the science really well, but don’t know the application. Our students understand the application.”

The world continues to change. And the environment is one of the ongoing issues consumers and businesses think and talk about.

“Ethanol is a big deal, as is wind energy … bioenergy issues. Sustainable agriculture continues to be an emerging area,” Bailey continued. “Western programs draw 80 percent traditional students and 20 percent urban. Our urban forestry classes are designed to teach kids from non-farm backgrounds.”

It is the practice to teach students, not simply in the classroom, but by having the students go out and apply what they have learned. Some students have not been exposed to farming or any type of hands-on agricultural activities. The real life application is an essential part of the learning process.

Bailey says, “We also have 30 to 35 students out on internships during the summer at various places around the country. They are voluntary. Students get credit and it’s a perfect opportunity for them to try things out, to see if they do like a particular job. A couple of different situations happen. There are times that the internship is what allows them to determine if a job or career path in a specific field is what they had anticipated. Sometimes it’s not.

“Or, as often happens, they do such a fine job and have a good relationship where they intern that they get a job offer.”

Jennifer M. Neef, ACES Career Services Coordinator at the University of Illinois concurs. “Our students and alumni know the crucial fact about the College of ACES: That this is where science and the real world intersect to produce practical solutions to some of the world’s biggest challenges, whether that be increasing the safety of our food or pioneering research in bioenergy.

“Our faculty are simultaneously educators and scientists, and the research that’s conducted here influences both what’s taught in the classroom and the quality of life around the globe.”

Neef says the largest percentage of majors at the U of I is in Agricultural and Consumer Economics (ACE), followed by Animal Sciences. ACE is a business-focused curriculum that is tied to agribusiness and the consumer. It appeals to students who have aspirations to work in the food and agribusiness sector as well as those who want to work in personal finance, consumer economics, banking, marketing, management and other business-related fields. Animal Sciences attracts students who want to pursue veterinary school and other careers related to animal agriculture, companion animals and life sciences.

Illinois State University’s Dr. Rick Whitaker currently teaches agricultural marketing courses. In addition to that role he serves as the Placement Coordinator and is the Faculty Advisor to ISU NAMA (National Agri-Marketing Association).

“Most of our students come from the northern two-thirds of Illinois. We do have a small number of out-of-state majors and some from the Chicago Metropolitan area.” The majority of ISU students, however, do come from rural backgrounds, he says.

Today’s students have to keep up with the changes. “Rapid technological innovation and commercial agriculture will continue to take advantage of economies of scale (larger and fewer enterprises),” says Whitaker. “Expansion of agriculture as an energy producer as well as food and fiber (renewable energy sources) also continues.”

According to Neef, “It’s no longer accurate to equate agriculture only with ‘the farm’ and assume that career opportunities are diminishing. Certainly, production agriculture is important, but the very fact that this college (U of I) also includes departments specializing in technology, economics, food, plants, animals and human development indicates how very broad our scientific range is.”

“Believe it or not, at a time when our economy has been in a down-turn, our enrollment has been steadily climbing. Our enrollment was up 7 percent in fall 2007, and up another 6.8 percent in fall 2008,” said Dr. Gary L. Minish, Dean, College of Agricultural Sciences at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. “We attribute this increase to the strength of the agricultural industry and its important role in the U.S. economy.”

Whitaker added, “Students graduating in the agribusiness sequence (ISU) with the combination of business, science and applied agriculture courses are sought after and valuable employees in the agricultural industry.”

Students’ Perspectives – Why Agriculture-Related Studies?

The family farm is often what sparks the interest of a student to earn an agricultural-based degree.

Ashley Suttles of Murrayville, Ill., comes from a family farm background. A junior at Western Illinios University in Macomb, she is now majoring in Agricultural Business. Suttles began her college experience as an Education major and changed her focus a year and a half later, to agriculture studies. “That (education) was not exactly where I could see myself personally in 10 years … agriculture was something that was always in the back of my mind,” she says.

Her vision of her own future kept coming back to her roots. “Growing up on a family farm, agriculture had been and still is a large part of my life. My Dad farms around 800 acres of both corn and soybeans. Along with that my family raises purebred Charolais and has a substantial amount of commercial cattle.” She participated in 4H programs and has an older brother who graduated from WIU with a degree in Agricultural Business.

It was by watching him grow into a successful individual that she realized she had the same passions as he. “That’s when I made the transition into ag, and I haven’t looked back since.” She will intern this summer in Curran at Archer Daniels Midland (ADM). “I’ll be working within the grain operations, more in depth with the health and safety.”

One of the challenges the ag industry faces, from Suttle’s perspective, is the stereotype that often comes along with it. A lot of people use the term “cows, plows and sows,” she said. While that aspect is important, there is more to the industry. “We need to work to improve and help educate others and advocate what agriculture truly means, and how it is an actual way of life.”

Bryan Schullian, an Agricultural Education major at WIU agreed. “We have to advocate what agriculture is about, and we have to start with children. It’s time to teach that next generation to have a passion for the industry. Don’t be OK with the status quo,” he said. “We now have GPS systems, computers in the tractors. And you have to be licensed for pesticides. We have to let the kids know how they can be a part of this growing industry. Teach them where their clothes and food come from.” Schullian’s passion for the industry was instilled at an early age. His family has a grain and cattle farm in the Quincy area.

Ashley Kabureck hails from Geneva, Ill., and is a recent ISU graduate. Her major was Agriculture Industry Management with a concentration in Animal Science. Initially, she wanted to be a veterinarian.

“I chose this major because I wanted to get a degree in the business side of agriculture while learning about the animal science portion as well,” said Kabureck. “With this major, I have the best of both worlds.” Her long-range plans are to pursue a master’s degree in Animal Science or Agribusiness and to work with an animal health company selling animal pharmaceuticals. Currently, she is working with Advance Trading, a commodity brokerage firm in Bloomington.

Aaron Reigler’s family started operating a farm in the McClean, Ill., area about 10 years ago. He elected to go to ISU, he says, “to obtain knowledge that will help my family’s farm succeed.” His major was in Ag Industry Management: Agronomy, which allowed him to take courses in different fields of interest, including: marketing, accounting, agronomy and animal science. “I want to work on the family farm with my dad and brothers.” However, he does have an internship set up for the summer with NAU Crop Insurance, in Ramsey, Minn., that he hopes can turn into more permanent employment. “Ultimately, my goal is to be able to farm without the need of a second income.”


Where are ag grads working?
  • 1st Farm Credit Services of Illinois
  • A.G. Edwards & Sons
  • ABN Amro Bank
  • Advance Trading, Inc.
  • AGCO Corporation
  • AgReliant Genetics
  • American Jersey Cattle Association
  • Archer Daniels Midland
  • Boeing
  • Bonaventure Medical Foundation
  • Brandt Consolidated
  • Burris Seed Farms
  • Cargill Animal Nutrition
  • Cargill Meat Solutions
  • Carle Clinic and Hospital
  • Carlson Environmental, Inc.
  • Caroline Rose
  • Case New Holland
  • Caterpillar, Inc.
  • Chicago Board of Trade
  • Country Financial
  • Dept. of Homeland Security
  • Dow AgroSciences/Mycogen Seeds
  • Family Farms
  • Farm Progress Companies
  • Ford Motor Company
  • Four Seasons Hotel Chicago


  • Frito Lay
  • GROWMARK/ FS Cooperatives
  • Hormel Foods
  • Illinois Dept. of Natural Resources
  • Illinois Farm Bureau
  • Illinois Lt. Governor’s Office
  • John Deere
  • JP Morgan Chase
  • Komatsu American Corporation
  • Kraft Foods Inc.
  • Loyola University Medical Center
  • Merck & Co
  • Mervyn’s
  • Monsanto
  • National Council for Science and the Environment
  • Nestle Purina PetCare
  • Northwestern Mutual Financial Network
  • NOVA
  • NutraSweet
  • Pioneer Hi-Bred Intl. Inc.
  • Pocono Wildlife Rehabilitation
  • State Farm Insurance
  • Syngenta
  • Washington DC Teaching Fellows Program
  • Wyffels Hybrids
  • Wyndham Garden Hotel


Southern Illinois University-Carbondale - Ag Student Profiles

Recent SIU graduate, Amanda Lawson, of Sorento, focused her energies on Animal Science Production. “I chose this major because I have always loved animals and wanted to continue my passion for animals.”

Lawson says she didn’t have any personal farming experience when she enrolled at SIU. “I did have hounds, and they were my project in high school FFA.” Lawson says her SIU education has been a great foundation in preparation for graduate school. I am planning on continuing my education at the University of Arkansas in Animal Breeding.

SIUC has helped me in many different ways,” she says. “It has given me a background in the knowledge that I needed to succeed in my education and in my career. My long-term goal is to work for Purina in Research and Development in bovine.“

Chelsea Marti, an SIU senior, grew up on a dairy and grain farm in Greenville, Ill. “This is a family operation that started with my great grandfather,” she said. “I have helped my Dad with the milking since I was little, on my days off of school. I became interested in farming and began asking many questions about the operation and how things are done. I joined FFA in high school and quickly became very active, learning even more about agriculture.” That experience, she says, helped her in making her decision to major in agriculture.

Specifically, Marti is majoring in Agribusiness Economics because she has a strong interest in finance and the business aspects of agriculture. She says she plans to attend graduate school following her December graduation from SIU. “The wide variety of agriculture classes I have taken at SIUC will allow me many options … my long term goal is to become a county director for an Extension office. The classes that I have taken at SIUC have helped me gain a general knowledge of finance, budget aspects, public relations, sales and governmental policy.”

Heather Milliman graduated in May and will be working for the Wabash Valley FS Service Company for the summer. In the fall, she plans to return to SIU for a master’s degree in Agribusiness Economics.

SIU was a natural choice for Milliman, as it was just far enough from her home in Newton, yet just close enough, as well. Plus, she has two older brothers and an older sister who are SIU alumni. “They recommended the college because of the staff and the quality education.”

Going into an agricultural field also seemed natural to Milliman. “I come from a family grain and livestock farm. My family farms about 300 acres of corn, soybeans, wheat and hay. We have always had 10 to 20 horses on the farm, which we showed at county 4-H and FFA shows,” she said. “We also enjoy trail riding in Southern Illinois. During our 4-H and FFA careers, we also enjoyed raising a small herd of crossbred cattle and crossbred swine to show.”

Milliman says she “chose the Agribusiness Economics major after attaining her associate’s degree from a junior college in Agriculture Business and Supply … I have learned many new skills that will benefit me in obtaining a job in the agricultural industry.

Senior, Jenna Wicks, of Ancono, Ill., is majoring in Agricultural Systems with a specialization in Agriculture Education. “I chose Agriculture Education because I want to be able to share with others the importance of agriculture and how it affects their everyday life and that it’s not just cows, sows and plows anymore.” She credits her high school agriculture education teacher for the influence he had in showing her what the ag industry has to offer. “I don’t have an ag background. I became involved in agriculture as a high school student. My agriculture education teacher opened my eyes to the opportunities in agriculture and how I could play an important role even without having an ag background.” She wants to continue that message.

Wicks says SIU has laid the foundation for her future, and she intends to pursue her master’s there as well. “I hope in the future to work as an advocate for agriculture in some capacity whether it be politics, service or education.”


Ag-related Careers

  • Ag engineering
  • Agroecology
  • Agronomy
  • Bioenergy
  • Biotechnology
  • Education
  • Farming (crop and animal)
  • Horticulture
  • Hospitality and tourism
  • International trade
  • Seed breeding
  • Sustainable landscape design

For information about the universities' farms and additional details about their respective agriculture programs, please visit their Web sites at:

Illinois State University:
Southern Illinois University:
University of Illinois-Urbana/Champaign:
Western Illinois University:


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