DECATUR, Ill. — For well over a century, this Macon County city has been on the cutting-edge of innovation in processing agriculture products, and a major financial commitment sets a solid foundation for the next generation of leaders in that space.
The Decatur Public Schools Foundation recently announced a $9 million commitment from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation to build the FFA Agriculture Education Center.
This investment in infrastructure, unique among high school ag programs in the United States, will establish the Dwayne O. Andreas Ag Academy as one of the country’s premier dedicated ag education sites and supplement the coursework and National FFA Organization programming available to Decatur Public School students enrolled in the program.
Construction will begin in early summer and completion is anticipated by winter.
The Andreas Academy was established in 2018 with a $1.65 million gift from the Buffett Foundation and includes educators and FFA advisors at Eisenhower and MacArthur high schools who lead a formal academic and field-based curriculum. The academy emphases career development in the ag industry.
Since then, academy students from both high schools have worked collaboratively to build a hands-on Living Science Farm. At this site, they pursue entrepreneurial ventures and supervised ag experience activities with livestock and horticulture.
The new 22,600-square-foot facility will vastly expand the program’s acreage and dedicated instructional space.
“A large section will be an indoor arena where we’ll be able to host livestock shows, clinics and other special events that serve FFA chapters in the region and state.
The main body of the building will have two lab spaces, an ag business classroom, horticulture space and a large mechanics technology shop,” said Zach Shields, DPS Foundation executive director.
“Those instructional spaces will house our Dwayne O. Andreas Ag Academy academic curriculum with the different subject areas for the teachers.”
Basic ag science and intro to ag classes for freshmen will continue to be offered at the high schools.
“Then as students become sophomores, juniors and seniors and they’re really invested in the program, they will actually go to the ag center that’s about seven or eight minutes from each high school,” Shields said.
Classes will be block-scheduled with two-hour segments.
The site will also have test plots, as well as production plots for possibly sweet corn.
“The students have various entrepreneurial ventures that will support the program going forward. The main body of the grant ends in June and after that our conversation has always been that the students need to have structures in place where they’re making money to support their own activities. The students over the last maybe two years have brought in about $20,000 and continue to build that,” Shields said.
“We have a partner nursery that doesn’t have room on his own ground, so he’s contracted with our students to do the starts for him in the beginning of the year and then they sell them back to him. They’re learning a lot about business directly and about how you need to be a self-starter to really do the things you want to do.”
The need for a new facility became apparent with the growing interest by students.
There were 202 students enrolled in the Andreas Ag Academy program during its premier academic year of 2018-2019. Enrollment has increased each year to 435 students in 2021-2022 and grown from two to four full-time ag teachers.
“We’ve grown very rapidly and we quickly outgrew the space we had at the high schools. We’ve been aware of this for about a year, year and a half, and we knew we were going to have to do something to address and to accommodate the program growth with the number of students we have,” Shields said.
To accommodate the expanding academy enrollment, staff had to improvise to make accommodations.
“One of our teachers at Eisenhower High School is teaching in a third floor English classroom. It makes it hard to do labs and things like that,” Shields said.
“We were talking with Mr. Buffett over some span of time about how the program was growing. We keep him in the loop consistently and we do a lot of reporting back to the Buffett Foundation.
“In a conversation it became pretty clear to him that we needed to do something that was really meaningful to accommodate the program growth, and then we also want to work and benefit all of the FFA chapters in the region and state.”
Solidifies Academy Status
“When we provided the funding to create the Dwayne O. Andreas Ag Academy, we had no idea how successful this program would become,” said Howard Buffett, Howard G. Buffett Foundation chairman and CEO.
“By building this facility, I believe it further solidifies the reputation of the ag academy and its students as among the best in the United States. We appreciate the support of this new project by the mayor, the city council, the county board and the ongoing support of the school board, which originally embraced the inception of the ag academy.”
Marie Shaffer represents the academy’s purpose of introducing non-traditional urban students to the world of careers connected to agriculture. She was the program’s first graduate and entered her field of study solely because of her experience in the ag academy.
“This program has genuinely changed my life,” said Shaffer, who served as MacArthur FFA Chapter president and now studies plant biotechnology at the University of Illinois’ College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.
“There have been so many opportunities presented to me through the Andreas Academy, and I can’t wait to see where else agriculture takes me.”
The academy’s focus from the beginning has been on careers and introducing students to the gamut of opportunities available in modern agriculture.
“We branded the program ‘Welding to Wall Street,’ and I think it is significant that the academy is named for Dwayne O. Andreas,” Shields said.
Andreas is credited with transforming ADM into an industrial powerhouse.
“ADM is still right on the cutting-edge in developing technologies. They’re building the InnovaFeed plant here that produces insect-based feed. They’re doing things like agroecology and net-carbon neutrality. So, our students are going to learn about jobs that don’t even exist yet. They’re going to discover them as business develops,” Shields said.
“ADM is really stepping in to help sponsor a lot of our FFA activities. When you have chapters as big as ours, it’s expensive to travel, pay dues and do other things, particularly in a school district that has 74% poverty rate. A lot of our students can’t afford to do those extra things unless we’re able to supplement the normal district budget.
“That’s important to the district, too. The district is picking up the salaries at the end of the grant period in June, but the outside funding for the extra activities we raise privately through the school’s foundation.”
The program’s success is also apparent by the students’ accomplishments.
This past fall, Andreas Academy FFA Officers from MacArthur High School were selected as a National Model of Excellence chapter based on activities during its third year of existence.
This achievement recognized these Decatur students as a top chapter among 8,817 in the nation.