CARBONDALE, Ill. — Chris Vick has been a student, a worker, a teacher and a farm director, all at the same university.
For Vick, Southern Illinois University, more precisely the SIU University Farms, isn’t just work, but also home and family.
“My wife, Amelia, works at the university, too. It helps that our hobby is work. That’s what we do for fun,” Vick said.
He and his wife, who are the parents of two daughters, also farm 500 acres of row crops at their farm in Alexander County.
Alexander County is close to Vick’s heart. It’s where he grew up, in Tamms. He attended college at SIU, going first for a degree in agronomy.
By way of living nearby in the summertime, Vick landed his first job at the SIU University Farms.
“Most kids want to go home in the summertime. I came on in the summertime. There were no openings during the school year, so I took advantage of that and started work on the farms in 1995,” Vick said.
For Vick, whose parents did not farm, the job on the farm was as much a part of his college education as his formal classes.
“I learned a lot about farming. We did all the row cropping. We made all the forages for the animals. I had a great opportunity to get hands-on training and learn the art of farming while I was in school. I could sit in a classroom and learn theory, then put it into practice out here on the farms,” Vick said.
As the director of the University Farms since April 2020, Vick serves as the supervisor of the student workers who do the jobs that he himself once did.
“It’s unique because when I talk to the student workers who are out here now, I can share that experience with them,” Vick said.
He also understands, from his own experience as an undergraduate and as a graduate student, the stresses that his students have.
“There are things that I have experience with that I know they should be worrying about and what they shouldn’t be worrying about, as far as their academic careers and what’s going on here at school, so that’s where I can help,” he said.
While his job doesn’t formally involve teaching, Vick does teach, with his area of expertise being the agronomy and crop science side of the farm.
That includes trying to teach students to use the latest in farm technology, something that had been a challenge, with the majority of the University Farm’s older equipment being almost unusable and, due to budget constraints, unable to replace.
“When I started the job, everything was broken,” Vick said.
For the second year now, Vick and the farms have a lease agreement with Sydenstricker Nobbe Partners, a John Deere dealership with locations in Illinois and Missouri, for the use of state-of-the-art John Deere equipment.
“Last year we got $3 million worth of equipment on lease and this year, we are getting almost $4.7 million worth of equipment. This is all for our students, to learn on and to learn about and to use here on the farms,” Vick said.
When it comes to managing the farms, Vick said he approaches it like he does his own farm. Funding and staffing are the top two challenges he faces.
“One of my philosophies of running the University Farms is we’ve tried to run it more like a real farm. We are trying to be conscious of money, for sure. We don’t want to lose money. We want to make money. We were never designed to make money, but saying that, that doesn’t mean we can’t maximize our earning potential. We don’t want to be a burden on the university any more than we have to be,” Vick said.
He has to balance that with the farm’s mission, as part of the university, to teach students.
“That’s our fundamental mission so that can’t outweigh the revenue side. We’re really under pressure to make this place as efficient as we can. We still have to teach kids. We have our eye on the budget, but we also have our mission and we’re trying to figure out how to make it all work,” he said.
Vick’s enthusiasm for all things at the University Farms is evident. That enthusiasm is bolstered by an environment at SIU that has stabilized from the upheaval and controversy of past years.
“Everything is headed in the right direction. We’ve got a good administration, a good chancellor, a really good president, a new dean, who is my boss, Dr. Erik Brevik. Morale is high here now. And it was about as low as I could imagine,” Vick said.
Even despite that and during those tough times, Vick said, “we held it together” for the sake of the students. He uses a phrase that he learned from one of his professors at SIU.
“I always want to help a student see what they can be. A lot of times they don’t see how good they are or how good they could be and what their potential is. It’s my job to help them see that and to help them try to achieve that, to make them better than they think they can be,” Vick said.
A board member of the Pulaski-Alexander County Farm Bureau, he encourages students to get involved in activities and organizations, such as Collegiate Farm Bureau and Collegiate FFA.
Lessons learned, from farming his own land, from his job as a worker on the University Farms, as a researcher and now as the farm director are lessons he tries to pass on to students.
“A life lesson to me was the 2012 drought. We lost all of our corn crop at home. We lost all of our plots here. I didn’t have any crop insurance and I thought it was going to be the end of me farming. In the end, it worked out. I farm with insurance now. That crop isn’t your life. I think there’s not much more of a stressful job in the world than being a farmer. I tell kids this all the time — farming is the only thing you can do absolutely right — you can do everything 100% right and still fail. There are things that are out of your control. We can only worry about the things that we can control. The things we can’t control, we have to live with and move on,” he said.
Moving on isn’t a part of Vick’s plans. Both of the jobs he loves, farming and directing the University Farms at SIU, allow him to do what he loves.
“I enjoy the fact that I could farm and work at SIU and I’ve always been very proud to work at the university and be associated with it,” Vick said. “What more exciting place to be, if you love agriculture, than to work at an agricultural school?”