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
“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,”
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
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
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
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
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
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,”
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.