NORMAL, Ill. — Despite the urging from her high school ag teacher, becoming an ag instructor was not in Miranda Buss’s career plans.
Her plans eventually changed after working in other areas of the industry and she is now assistant professor of agriculture and ag program director at Heartland Community College.
She grew up on a southern Illinois farm near Salem, where her family produced corn, soybeans, wheat and milo and raised Polled Hereford cattle. The milo was switched to soybeans with the development of Roundup Ready soybeans.
“I went to school in Salem, where I was highly involved in 4-H and FFA. My ag teacher was Matt Pokojski, who is retiring this year at Salem,” Buss said.
“I told him that I was going to work in ag biotech. I love biotech, and he told me, ‘No, you’re going to be an ag teacher,’ and I argued with him for years that I was not going to be an ag teacher. Now, look, he was right. I’m just not at the high school level. I’m at the collegiate level.”
After high school, she enrolled at Rend Lake College in Ina in the associate of applied science program and earned a degree in agriculture business.
“I still had the idea that I was going to work in biotech for Bayer, Monsanto or Syngenta, you name it,” she said.
Buss transferred to the University of Illinois, where she got a degree in crop sciences with a focus on plant biotechnology and molecular biology. She had an internship with Monsanto on the soybean side and did some work at the U of I Extension office.
She then decided to enroll in a unique graduate program at the U of I — the Professional Science Master’s degree.
“Instead of being a research master’s, the PSM is a hybrid of science and business. I got my degree in plant biology, but I mostly took crop science classes,” she said.
“So, I had all of these graduate-level crops and soils classes, but instead of doing research and a thesis, I was taking MBA classes. So, I don’t have my MBA, but I took MBA-level business classes and so I had a ton of classes versus research for my master’s.”
During her master’s studies, Buss was at a U of I lab where she helped at the Soybean Free Air Concentration Enrichment project led by Lisa Ainsworth.
“I loved the people, loved the research, but absolutely hated running (lab) gels. Lab life was not for me. I wanted to talk to people about the technology, so I went the way of ag communications as kind of a goal and was given the opportunity to go to Duluth, Georgia, to work for AGCO Corporation as a marketing intern,” she said.
“I worked with their hay and harvesting team doing all of the data to help prepare for their marketing plans. It was lot of fun in data, data analytics and also on the marketing side.
“While I was there, I was one of the very few people in that building that knew anything about agronomy. Most of their agronomists were in Hesston, Kansas. They were asking about a few things and I said we could write something about that.
“So, my last week as an intern at AGCO I wrote one of their very first white papers. It was on soil compaction, why it happens and how much this can cost a farmer and that there are products that can alleviate that.”
She returned to AGCO full-time after receiving her master’s and worked there for about a year before returning to Illinois to be back with family and for personal reasons.
Going full circle, Buss returned to U of I’s Professional Science Master’s program as assistant director.
During her five-year stint at PSM, she recruited and mentored students looking at science and business graduate school options; advised current students on internship and full-time job opportunities; co-taught professional and career planning seminars for students; coordinated and maintained social media and email marketing, as well as website; and promoted U of I PSM programs — agricultural production (animal, crop or sustainable systems), bioenergy, food science and human nutrition, Geographic Information Science and plant biotechnology.
A career in teaching then came calling, just as her high school ag teacher had predicted. Buss brought her wide range of experiences to Heartland Community College as the school made the commitment to expand its agriculture program.
“It was kind of a natural fit when this position opened up for a tenure-track member at Heartland,” she said.
“They had some ag classes, but they needed me to write curriculum, develop an advisory board. They were also planning a building project and needed help making many industry connections. I said I was up for that challenge and I came here in the fall of 2019.”
Buss got one “normal” semester at HCC and then COVID hit and she had to learn to teach horticulture, animal science and crop science online.
“I sent kits home for students to grow their own plants. A lot of animal science was tour-based since we didn’t have any animals on campus; we couldn’t do that. So, we got some funds from GROWMARK and I purchased a GoPro. I attached to my head and went on tours of farms. I spent hours editing video and uploading it so students could get my view of whatever farm I was at since they couldn’t go but I could,” she said.
“Now that we are hopefully out of the COVID times, I try to make my classes very hands-on and out of the classroom. I really don’t want to do too much lecture if I don’t have to, and since I have so much lecture material from when we were out with COVID, I’d say watch this video on your own time and let’s go do this project.”
Buss admitted her résumé “is kind of jumbled” with career experiences spanning a variety of topics. That wide range of professional and educational experiences serve her well in her role as educator and ag program director at HCC.
“I was told by our old dean who is no longer here at Heartland that I was the best for the job ‘because they needed somebody who could do all of these different things and not a whole lot of people have those varied experiences,’” she said.
“I never thought I was going to work in ag equipment, but I liked talking to people about the benefits of agriculture and agronomy. I got to talk about the agronomy sector of it or talk to people about equipment.
“Even though I was a data analyst there, I was at all of the farm shows talking to them about compaction and how a single-track tractor compacts differently than a quad track.
“Then when I went to U of I in the PSM program, I was always interested in agriculture and the education side of things and thought I wanted to try it. I loved it there, but missed really getting to dive deep into the agriculture part of it.”
A favorite aspect of her teaching career is seeing the students’ successes.
“That’s a lot of fun. I’ve only been here a few years, but I get students who will email me or add me on Facebook or LinkedIn and tell me what they’re doing. It’s neat to see where they end up,” Buss said.
“It’s also neat to see it click in their head. They’ll say, ‘I have no idea what I want to do, but now that I’ve taken this class and learned this, I think I want to go this path.’ I really love sitting down with them and hearing their career plans, sitting down with them and going, ‘OK, how do we get you there?’
“What’s the classes, what’s the college, who are the right people that you need to meet that’s in my network who will help you understand that career path? I really love that aspect of the job.
“I also really enjoy working with industry, asking them what they need and sitting down with them and creating curriculum here and then hearing that’s what we need and that student did really well in this area.
“Both aspects are nice. From the student side, helping them land the job. From the industry side, when they say they don’t think it’s possible and I’ll say it is.
“The perk of a community college is we can be pretty quick on our feet to add classes or programs maybe within a semester, but for sure within a year I can make it happen if we think it’s valuable. I like working with them and hearing their thoughts and opinions. It’s very unique that we get to do that and work on all aspects of it.”