Thanks to funding from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, 600 middle schoolers from the Decatur, Ill., Public School district will be going to the Farm Progress Show for free. Over 300 high schoolers also will go, with support from Buffett and the Macon County Farm Bureau, which is paying for every FFA member in the county to attend.
The Decatur-based agribusiness millionaire and son of business magnate Warren Buffett paid for sixth graders to go to FPS when it was in Decatur in 2017.
Zach Shields, executive director for the Decatur Public Schools Foundation, says that trip was a success, and he is eager for another one this year. “It got them [students] interested, and I think that worked very well as far as starting the pipeline we’re trying to build here,” Shields says, adding that the 2017 donation by Buffett “started the conversation” on an agriculture academy for the urban district.
That same year, Buffett’s foundation promised $1.7 million to start the Dwayne O. Andreas Ag Academy, which funds a full-time FFA advisor and teacher at both Decatur high schools, as well as a 15-acre test farm. Many of the students who went on the FPS trip in 2017 are now enrolling in the academy in its second year.
“Howard asked that we name it after Dwayne Andreas. When Howard was at ADM, I believe he looked at Dwayne as a mentor,” Shields says.
FPS trips for seventh graders are also part of Buffett’s grant. “Our idea is that, as we get them to the Farm Progress Show, they’ll come to the ag academy as freshmen the year after,” Shields says.
Decatur’s middle schools are combining this fall and will include an agriculture academy.
“We want to grab their interest in STEM, animal science and horticulture with 4-H in elementary school, and then move them up into the middle school ag academy and the Farm Progress Show, and then on into the high school,” Shields says. “We’re trying to build a whole structure that goes from elementary school through high school.”
Andrew Klein, lead teacher for the Dwayne O. Andreas Ag Academy, says since high schoolers often have cars, they have access to the test plots.
Klein says the Farm Progress Show gives his older students who are thinking about ag careers a chance to see options. FPS is “a big highlight for these companies to show off new technology and up-and-coming varieties or methods. I think it’s a great place to highlight nonfarming careers in the agriculture space.”
Other urban ag programs are found in Illinois, including Mount Vernon, Macomb, Normal and Chicago. And a similar academy to Decatur’s is in Buffett’s hometown of Omaha, Neb.
The Decatur academy offers honor credits to high schoolers in what are officially elective courses. “Ultimately, we would like to offer animal physiology instead of human anatomy, and it would mean a science credit,” Shields says. “Since we’re a four-year startup program, we’re still figuring a lot of this stuff out.”