Fields of Opportunity
By Zach Shields | Photography by Kathy Locke
The American agriculture industry accounts for more than 22 million jobs. Less than 2% of these jobs directly involve farming; the other 98% represent employment in fields as varied as accounting, commodities trading, engineering, equipment sales, food science, marketing, mechanical trades and transportation.
Historically, most of these careers have been pursued by young people from agrarian backgrounds. But as demographics shift and fewer families occupy farms, the workforce is necessarily growing more diverse.
“Our companies right here in Decatur, Illinois, feed the rest of the world,” says Julie Moore Wolfe, mayor of the City of Decatur. “We should all take a great deal of pride in that, but you don’t have to be a farmer to be part of the global importance of our agribusiness companies.”
“We have to engage more young people to pursue opportunities in agriculture if we want the United States to continue to be a leader in global food security.”
– Howard G. Buffett
Recognizing this reality, Decatur Public Schools established the Dwayne O. Andreas Ag Academy in August 2018. Branded “From Welding to Wall Street,” the Academy introduces local students to the abundant possibilities right in their backyards.
Brian Byers, vice president of business development at Neuhoff Media, a vocal proponent of agriculture education and an Eisenhower High School alum, says it bothered him that a body of 9,000 students rarely encountered these job prospects. “It never made any sense to me,” he says. “We’d be out at the Farm Progress Show and all these busses from all over the state would pull in, and we’d never see any [Decatur School] District 61 kids. I’d say, ‘How can that be?’ There are all these careers in all kinds of agriculture-connected fields, and our students weren’t even aware they exist.”
“The Decatur Public Schools by nature are our largest producer of workforce,” says Nicole Bateman, President of the Economic Development Corporation of Decatur and Macon County. She believes the Academy gives local agribusiness employers a deeper candidate pool for new hires.
The Academy operates as a collaboration between Eisenhower and MacArthur high schools and students choose a sequence of classes from 11 course offerings, including Honors sections. Academy activities adhere to the National FFA Organization model. Formerly called Future Farmers of America, the FFA program places a heavy emphasis on personal development and communication habits that translate to the 21st-century work world. FFA programming has existed in Macon County for many decades, but it never found a foothold in Decatur Public Schools — until now.
“This program has genuinely changed my life,” says Marie Shaffer, who served as the president of the MacArthur FFA chapter while in high school. She now studies plant biotechnology at the University of Illinois, with related interests in agroecology and ag business. Her enrollment in the university’s College of ACES (Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences) is a direct result of her participation in the Academy.
Beyond exploring future employment and growing into more informed consumers, students cultivate soft skills and leadership traits that will serve them well no matter what career choices they ultimately make. Shaffer, for instance, recently earned a governor’s appointment to the 20-member State Fair Advisory Board. At age 19, she serves alongside state senators, representatives, agribusiness leaders and the director of the Illinois Department of Agriculture.
Students like Shaffer are why the Academy was founded, and the instructors who helped cultivate the program are excited to see its growth. Andrew Klein arrived as one of two original instructors. Three years later, he was named principal consultant for agricultural education by the Illinois State Board of Education. The program he helped create in Decatur has more than doubled in size — from 202 students in 2018 to a current fourth-year enrollment of 435 — and now employs four teachers.
Launching an endeavor on such a scale so quickly requires a seismic financial contribution. This materialized in 2017 via the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, which contributed more than $1.65 million to build the program.
“We have to engage more young people to pursue opportunities in agriculture if we want the United States to continue to be a leader in global food security,” says businessman, philanthropist and Decatur resident Howard Buffett. He assigns significance to the fact that the program is the namesake of former Archer-Daniels-Midland Company CEO Dwayne Andreas, “a true pioneer who helped make the U.S. a global leader in agribusiness; we hope this Academy inspires the next generation of leaders to build on his legacy.”
This is the goal of the Academy’s instructors, too. Seth McMillan is in his third year as an Andreas Academy teacher and FFA Advisor. He works alongside other teachers Delia Jackson, Becca Merrill and Hannah Sawyer to guide students at both high schools.
“We’re introducing kids to a number of the science, business and tech-related careers that aren’t frequently thought of when people talk about agriculture,” McMillan says. “I can’t tell you how many businesses have reached out to ask if we have students interested in hearing about jobs. Just having that FFA experience on a resume lends a lot of weight, too.”
One program hallmark is encouraging students to lead the way. Academy planners never intended for their Living Science Farm to take off as it has, for example. They pictured several modest plots for crop experiments and pumpkins. Instead, entrepreneurially minded students claimed 12 school district acres on South Taylor Road (formerly Enterprise Elementary, now the American Dreamer STEM Academy). Energetic engagement prompted students to petition Decatur’s City Council to approve revised zoning that permits animal science projects. The result is construction of an Amish-built barn housing sheep, goats, poultry, meat rabbits, club calves and a miniature Sicilian donkey named T-Rex.
The Living Science Farm is one demonstration of how successful the ag academy has been in Decatur. Further evidence: The U.S. has 8,817 National FFA chapters, and the local MacArthur chapter has been named one of ten finalists for recognition as the top chapter in the country.