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The new center will provide connection and training for students and professionals who communicate about food and agriculture.

Holly Spangler, Senior Editor, Prairie Farmer

March 19, 2024

3 Min Read
A sun flare shines off the ACES Library on the University of Illinois campus
ACES LIBRARY: An initial phase for the James F. Evans Global Center for Food and Agricultural Communications will start this year in a dedicated space adjacent to a new learning innovation lab being constructed in the lower level of the College of ACES Library, Information and Alumni Center. University of Illinois

The University of Illinois will be the home of a new global center for excellence, designed to facilitate new and better ways to advance food and agricultural communications.

“The job and the challenge about communicating agriculture has grown, along with the issues,” says Owen Roberts, director of the U of I ag communications program and Prairie Farmer columnist. “The need has always been great, but the gap between ag and non-ag has continued to grow, and the issues have intensified.”

The center will be named for ag communications pioneer and Illinois professor emeritus Jim Evans, who was named a Prairie Farmer Honorary Master Farmer in 2010. The James F. Evans Global Center for Food and Agricultural Communications will continue to advance excellence through outreach, professional development, research, convenings and degree programs.

Roberts points to issues like sustainability, market accessibility, global trade, plant vs. animal protein, animal welfare, biotechnology and more, explaining that the new center will help train communicators to share ag’s story with decision-makers.

“When consumers, policymakers and decision-makers are better informed about agriculture, farmers will have a more productive, profitable and sustainable relationship with all those parties,” Roberts says, adding that consumer needs and preferences are constantly changing.

Known widely as the “grandfather of ag communications,” Evans pioneered ag comm as a field. Roberts joined the university three years ago, and he and his colleagues have rebuilt the undergraduate ag comm program on three principles based in Evans’ work: skill development, critical thinking and global awareness. Roberts believes the center will proceed from that success.

Student Jersey Hesse pictured with Jim Evans

An initial phase for the Evans Center will start this year in a dedicated space adjacent to a new learning innovation lab being constructed in the lower level of the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences Library, Information and Alumni Center.

“Illinois is uniquely positioned with both a leading agricultural industry and one of the largest urban centers to be a catalyst for new insights that will benefit food systems around the world,” says College of ACES Dean Germán Bollero.

Funding and more

To kick-start the more than $5 million fundraising campaign that is required to establish the Evans Center, an anonymous alum has made a sizable donation in Evans’ name. The center will continue to solicit donations and will focus on development for both students and professionals.

“I’m looking forward to seeing students working alongside experts from diverse backgrounds to tackle the most pressing communications challenges of today’s global food systems,” says Anna Ball, associate dean of academic programs in the College of ACES.

Roberts says there are many opportunities to reach out to people with balanced information, and that communication needs to be a two-way street — something professional agricultural communicators can help facilitate.

“You have to have two-way communication. It can’t all be a push. There has to be listening, then there’s talking, then there’s doing,” Roberts says. “If consumers can understand agriculture and if farmers can understand consumer needs, then people have information to make decisions about food and agriculture.”

Why host the center at the U of I? Roberts says it’s the right mix of rural and urban students, convening at the heart of a world-class agricultural research center, all building skills and lifelong relationships with alumni, who can also learn from students — including how young people are communicating issues. He imagines future projects in issues management, writing projects, learning programs and more.

“We have been talking with potential stakeholders to ensure we have the best possible vision for what the center needs to make an impact globally,” Ball says. “Ultimately, the Evans Center will find new and better ways to advance food and agricultural communications to create a better, more sustainable future for producers and consumers.”

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About the Author(s)

Holly Spangler

Senior Editor, Prairie Farmer, Farm Progress

Holly Spangler has covered Illinois agriculture for more than two decades, bringing meaningful production agriculture experience to the magazine’s coverage. She currently serves as editor of Prairie Farmer magazine and Executive Editor for Farm Progress, managing editorial staff at six magazines throughout the eastern Corn Belt. She began her career with Prairie Farmer just before graduating from the University of Illinois in agricultural communications.

An award-winning writer and photographer, Holly is past president of the American Agricultural Editors Association. In 2015, she became only the 10th U.S. agricultural journalist to earn the Writer of Merit designation and is a five-time winner of the top writing award for editorial opinion in U.S. agriculture. She was named an AAEA Master Writer in 2005. In 2011, Holly was one of 10 recipients worldwide to receive the IFAJ-Alltech Young Leaders in Ag Journalism award. She currently serves on the Illinois Fairgrounds Foundation, the U of I Agricultural Communications Advisory committee, and is an advisory board member for the U of I College of ACES Research Station at Monmouth. Her work in agricultural media has been recognized by the Illinois Soybean Association, Illinois Corn, Illinois Council on Agricultural Education and MidAmerica Croplife Association.

Holly and her husband, John, farm in western Illinois where they raise corn, soybeans and beef cattle on 2,500 acres. Their operation includes 125 head of commercial cows in a cow/calf operation. The family farm includes John’s parents and their three children.

Holly frequently speaks to a variety of groups and organizations, sharing the heart, soul and science of agriculture. She and her husband are active in state and local farm organizations. They serve with their local 4-H and FFA programs, their school district, and are active in their church's youth and music ministries.

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