The agriculture program at Richland Community College — a stone’s throw away from the Farm Progress Show grounds in Decatur, Ill. — is growing under a new director.
By the time of this year’s show, set for Aug. 27-29, Jess Smithers will have served in the role for about a year, following his tenure as state administrator for the Illinois Facilitating Coordination in Agricultural Education project. He served in the project between 2002 and 2018, starting out overseeing western Illinois ag education and then taking a statewide administrator role for the past six years.
Before 2002, Smithers was a high school agriculture teacher. He grew up on a diversified livestock farm in northern Illinois before eventually moving to Blue Mound, where he and his wife operate a hobby farm.
“As with anything, working in the field for 16 years as a state administrator helped me develop relationships with community college instructors,” Smithers says. “I also understand what the needs are of high school agriculture teachers, and having those relationships helps me in my current role, too.”
1 YEAR AND COUNTING: Richland’s ag program has had a new director for almost a year. Jess Smithers came to the position with experience in both teaching and administration.
Smithers says understanding how he can build off of what high school teachers impart to their students helps him prepare curriculum that touches on other aspects of working in ag. For example, he’s now starting a two-year program in agronomy and crop science to offer greater specialization and experience conducting field research to students.
The community college’s 50 acres of corn and soybeans, as well as 10 acres of tillable land, will help Richland as it enters into Natural Resources Conservation Service and Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education research grants.
“As we increase the size of our program and expand staff, which we have plans to do pretty quickly, then we’ll have the capacity to bring some more land into production as well,” Smithers says, noting they’ll be using precision agriculture technology and cover crops.
Internships part of education
Smithers is also emphasizing internships around Decatur as part of a well-rounded education to students.
“Richland is blessed to have the Farm Progress Show on an every-other-year basis, which I think will provide some unique opportunities for students in the future in making career connections in agribusiness,” Smithers says.
He adds that Decatur-based agriculture companies are always looking for well-trained talent for summer internships. He says internships are often a foot in the door to a career.
“If I could go back, I would do an internship. Even if it was just to see how a company works from the inside on my way to finishing my agricultural education degree, I think I would have,” Smithers says.
Pros of community colleges
Smithers is a graduate of the University of Illinois’ agricultural education program, but says he went to community college for two years before going on to the four-year university. He says agricultural students are likely to also start out at the community college level.
“According to data that I collected in my previous role, about 75% of the students going into agriculture pursued that at the community college initially,” Smithers says. “A vast majority of students choose the community college route, especially those that have an interest in agriculture.”
The cheaper price point is one reason, but he’s also pushing Decatur’s agribusiness leadership as another reason to come to Richland.
“With the consortium of Midwest community colleges we’re a part of, we’re all practically oriented,” Smithers concludes. “We’re doing practical farm research, where the results can be easily implemented and either taken back to the home farm or into an industry career.”