NORMAL, Ill. — Travelers along Interstate 55 near Lexington in McLean County see Illinois State University’s Department of Agriculture in action with on-farm research, teaching and outreach.

University Farm and the brick and mortar on ISU’s campus in Normal are the home of an ever-growing ag department that celebrated its centennial in 2011.

“The faculty is teaching record numbers of undergraduates students,” said Robert Rhykerd, ISU ag department chair and professor.

Enrollment has increased by nearly 130 percent over the past decade, up from 203 students in 2004 to 465 last fall.

While the numbers have increased, the job market has remained strong.

“During the past few years, nearly 100 percent of the ISU Agriculture Department graduates have found employment in the agriculture sector, and the trend looks to continue for those graduating this upcoming May,” Rhykerd said.

Additionally, there are many summer internship opportunities for students who will be continuing their education next fall.

Students can specialize in agribusiness, agronomy, agricultural education, agricultural communications and leadership, horticulture, animal science, pre-veterinary medicine and food industry management.

Many of the new students entering agriculture are coming from non-farm backgrounds.

With a 360-acre livestock and grain production teaching and research farm, the department is able to provide critical hands-on opportunities for students to develop essential skills working with livestock and crop production.

The department also has a 12-acre Horticulture Center that serves as the outdoor laboratory for horticulture students. This facility provides hands-on opportunities for students and allows them to apply what they are learning in the classroom.

“Beyond the classroom, ISU agriculture students have the opportunity to develop leadership skills and further their professional development by joining student clubs and competing on judging teams,” Rhykerd said.

These teams have excelled at the national level. For example, the ISU National Agri-Marketing Association received the Outstanding Chapter Award in North America in 2012 and 2013.

Students in Collegiate FFA, the horticulture PLANET Team, the Animal Science Academic Quadrathlon Team and the Ag Science Clubs also are competitive, and many students have won state and national contests.

This past fall a newly formed club, the ISU Collegiate Farm Bureau Club, was established and more than 150 agriculture students joined as charter members.

The club immediately became active in promoting agriculture by sponsoring an Ag Day on campus where they set up a display on the ISU Quad and visited with ISU students from all over campus about the importance of agriculture in their lives.

Another relatively new student club is the ISU Service Dog Organization, started in the spring of 2013 by two pre-veterinary students. The group now has about 30 members from all across campus.

These students have become foster “families” for three service dog puppies from Heartland Service Dogs of Mokena. The students are training the puppies in basic obedience and special service dog tasks, such as turning on light switches, opening doors and pulling wheelchairs.

The puppies live with the students and go everywhere with them, including attending ISU classes, the Bone Student Center, campus dining services, restaurants and Milner Library.

The puppies will be “raised” by the students for 18 to 24 months, at which time they will return to Heartland for placement with a person who has a disability, providing mobility and bracing service, serving as diabetic blood sugar or seizure alert dogs or serving a person with post traumatic stress disorder.

“The puppies are very popular on campus and have been great ambassadors for the Agriculture Department on campus as well as at recruiting events,” Rhykerd said.

A recently developed “Steer Contest” has student teams competing to see which team can make the most money raising steers. Students make all the management decisions, including inputs and marketing strategies.

In its first year, 30 students, many of whom have no large-animal experience, are working closely with faculty and farm staff to gain valuable hands-on experience in livestock production.

“If you walk the halls of the Ropp Agriculture Building on campus, you’ll see there have been a few changes in the faculty this year,” Rhykerd said.

After 32 years of distinguished service, Dr. Paul Walker retired last fall. During his illustrious career, Walker made many contributions to the field of animal nutrition and was recognized by ISU as an outstanding teacher and researcher.

In the wake of Walker’s retirement, the department has hired two new animal scientists to teach the curriculum and develop research programs.

Dr. Leslie Lekatz is the new reproductive physiologist. She recently completed her doctorate from North Dakota State University.

Dr. Justin Rickard, is from the University of Missouri and is the new meat scientist and beef specialist in the department.

“These are certainly exciting times for agriculture and especially for the ISU Department of Agriculture as they cultivate the next generation of aggies,” Rhykerd said.