One of the greater surprises as I have settled into western Illinois life over the past 15 years or so is that Macomb High School doesn't offer an agriculture program. No ag classes. No FFA.
They have, however, co-oped with a neighboring school, bussing students to ag classes throughout the day.
For a town of nearly 20,000 that boasts multiple grain elevators and rail lines, two large equipment dealerships, several farm management and agronomy businesses, a major seed cleaning warehouse plus an ag manufacturing company within in a few miles, this didn't make a lot of sense to me.
Plus, Macomb is home to Western Illinois University and its agriculture college. There's a thriving Farm Bureau, a great county 4-H program and tons of really good farmers. McDonough County is also home to some of the best farmland in the state.
But no FFA of their own? That just doesn't make sense.
Their ag community agreed, and two years ago put together the Macomb AgriScience Association.
MAA committee member and McDonough County Farm Bureau manager Sarah Grant says the Macomb ag program was a victim of budget cut in the '80s. The co-op with neighboring West Prairie school was a compromise about 15 years ago. Bussing created scheduling problems however, and Macomb students couldn't get science credit for the classes. Parents wanted a real program in their school and in a survey, nearly half the student body said they'd like to take agriculture classes.
"But once you get rid of something, it's hard to bring it back," Grant says.
The local school board told MAA, essentially, if they could raise money to fund the ag program, they would bring it back. MAA committee member and First Bankers Trust Company ag lender Lane Glick shares that they are a third of the way to their $300,000 goal. Money has come from private donations, (lots of) fundraisers and local businesses.
The board passed a policy last year to accept private money, and MAA anticipates that the board will approve bringing the ag program back with classes in session during Fall 2015.
It's a unique solution, for sure. While other schools, including Pontiac and Spoon River Valley, are really good examples of revived agriculture programs, those were funded by school dollars, not private monies.
"I don't know of any other places that are raising the money themselves," Grant says.
In my mind, it's the perfect example of a community putting its money where its values are. MAA surveyed local businesses, asking "Would having an ag program help meet your employee needs?" Overwhelmingly, they said yes. And then they gave money.
And in a community like McDonough County, where nearly 500 ag-related businesses employ nearly 2,500 people, agriculture for youth just makes sense.
It's good to see people working together, making a difference for agriculture.