DANVILLE – What does the next generation of agriculture look like?
It can be seen in the faces of the students in Craig Potter’s agronomy and other agriculture-related classes at Danville Area Community College.
The future of agriculture is moving away from small family farms and toward peripheral careers in ag research and ag technology.
During this fall semester, 15 adult students are enrolled in Potter’s ag economics class and 14 adults take his agronomy class. Another seven high school-aged College Express students also are enrolled in Potter’s ag classes.
Most, if not all, of Potter’s adult students already work in the agriculture field in some fashion.
“I have one young man from Milford who checks for disease in crops and uses drones,” Potter said. “I have another student who works at Tractor Supply in the retail business side of agriculture; other students work for farmers; and I have another student from Milford who might become an ag educator like his dad.
“I also have two students making a living doing soil application,” he added. “They have a big computer in the cab of the sprayer that shows the flow rates, speed and soil temperature and moisture for fertilizer and chemical application.”
Navigating a field with a sprayer, however, isn’t an easy task.
“They have 60-foot booms on either side of the sprayer, and they’re running it through the field at 12 miles per hour,” Potter said.
When it comes down to what kind of career they want in agriculture, the students’ interests vary.
“Some want to be in ag communications. Ag companies have people who go to colleges to recruit people to work for their company,” Potter explained.
“Some are all about the technology,” he said. “They love the auto steer and GPS equipment.”
Only about one-third of Potter’s students are actually interested in working on the family farm.
“Dad might not be ready to retire, so they have to go into something else for 15 years, and some of the farms aren’t large enough for two people to work,” Potter said. “Still, they need the basics in agronomy and economics.”
Jade Hixson’s interest in agriculture started at a young age. The Fithian woman’s grandfather was a farmer, and she recalls riding with her dad when he drove the grain truck. Her mom is a union electrician.
While pursuing an associate degree in ag business at DACC, Hixson has worked for two years at Tractor Supply in Danville, where she has become knowledgeable with tractor parts and livestock feed.
“I had been pretty knowledgeable with small animals,” she said, especially since she cares for a llama, pot-bellied pig and chickens at home. “But it’s taught me a lot more about the cattle, swine and poultry industries.”
Hixson plans to transfer to the University of Illinois and earn a degree in ag education.
“I hope to find the best field for me,” she said.
Ben Leitz of Milford studies agriculture at DACC and has plans to transfer to Southern Illinois University to major in agronomy. In addition, he works for his family’s company — Leitz Consulting Group — testing soil in the fall and spring and crop scouting.
“I grew up on a farm, but my dad and two uncles started this business about four years ago,” he said.
“We go out a few weeks after planting to see where we need to be replanting,” Leitz said, making his first pass through the fields driving an All-Terrain Vehicle and entering data into an iPad. “A lot of larger farms need to know where to replant.
“Then we do weed control and measure disease pressure so they know what herbicide to spray and when to spray it,” he said. “Right now we’re doing yield checks and evaluating stock quality right before harvest.”
A couple more DACC students from Milford — Austin Price and Gunnar Gray — also are interested in pursuing ag-related careers.
Price is studying accounting and agriculture at DACC with the hopes of becoming an accountant for a seed company.
“I grew up around FFA because my dad is the ag instructor at Milford High School,” he said.
Gray, an ag business major, said he works on a farm that is 40 percent organic with the remainder planted as non-GMO which employs more old-fashioned, hands-on farming techniques.
“We use updated equipment with older techniques. We have one tractor with auto steer,” he said as an example of one of the more modern pieces of equipment at the farm.
“You spend a lot of time in the tractor taking out rows of weeds instead of spraying them,” Gray said. “Everything takes more time.”
Although his family raised hogs and had chickens, it wasn’t until he was older that he considered a career in agriculture.
“Everybody needs a big, strong kid to bale hay,” he joked. “It’s really the only thing I enjoy and the only thing I know how to do.”
Mark Gernand, who lives east of Alvin, and Clayton Walker of Oakwood, both study ag business at DACC and would like to make a living at farming, but the young men say they also are being realistic about the future of farming.
“I’d like to continue on the family farm, but my future might be going back into the military,” Gernand said.
Walker said, “I like raising livestock and growing crops. My family has cattle and 500 dairy goats.
“A lot of farms are going to be family owned, but they’re not going to be a family farm like we know it today,” he said.