MACOMB, Ill. — For Jana Poliska Knupp and her family, the conversations around and about agriculture and farming come easily.
“The whole family works in ag. My dad and mom and my brother and his wife still farm. My sister is a safety manager with Smithfield. My husband is a loan officer with Compeer Financial. I have a brother-in-law who sells swine genetics and a sister-in-law who works for John Deere,” she said.
Knupp knows that for others who don’t have that family connection or any connection to farming or rural life or agriculture, those conversations may not happen at all.
As associate faculty at her alma mater, Western Illinois University, she is working to change that.
“I am constantly telling our students, you have to put yourself in the mindset of somebody who was not raised on a farm,” she said.
“For never having that connection to a show steer, it’s not that far of a leap to say, OK, we’re going to harvest it. But for somebody who has only had pets, like cats and dogs, they don’t make that connection. So, how do we relate to their values?”
Knupp focuses on making sure that everyone is involved in the conversations in her classes.
“I am constantly making sure that everybody in the room understands the conversation,” she said. “I think it is really important for everybody to understand a little bit about each area of ag. I want students to have at least a basis level of knowledge so they are able to have those conversations.”
As an instructor whose students hail from many backgrounds and many places, Knupp works to make sure everybody is involved.
“I think, unfortunately, that a lot of students think, when they get here, they are behind because they did not have FFA or an ag program. We get that from a lot of students from rural schools, too, where their school did not have an ag program or FFA. But they are able to catch up on these concepts really quickly,” she said.
“There also are students who have only been focused on one area, like hog production or crop production, their whole life. So, when you start talking about another area of ag, they’re clueless because agriculture is so diverse.”
She emphasizes using those conversations to connect students together in a shared passion for agriculture.
For Knupp, it’s similar to those family conversations — but in a different setting.
“Western is a small school, but I have always felt like we have that family feel,” she said. “I know all of my students by their first names. They call me by my first name. I understand that education is not just a 50-minute lecture and, hopefully, my students do, as well.”
WIU’s university setting and small-campus atmosphere attracts students from rural and urban areas throughout the Midwest.
That setting and a family connection attracted Knupp, then Jana Poliska, to WIU from her hometown of Stillman Valley.
She grew up on her family’s farm where her parents, Gary and Ronda, and her brother, Zack, and his wife, Mandy, still farm and raise livestock and row crops.
“I looked at a couple of other schools. My dad is a WIU alumni and I knew how much he loved it here, so when I got here, it felt like home. It was a quick decision to come here,” said Knupp, who graduated with her undergraduate degree in 2002.
She credits study-abroad programs that she took advantage of with helping expand her horizons.
“I went for five weeks and spent the summer in Brazil. I stayed at WIU for my MBA and we did a study-abroad program over spring break where we looked at NAFTA and trade, so I spent about two weeks in Mexico,” she said.
Knupp earned her Master of Business Administration from WIU in 2004.
Those programs and the time spent abroad are experiences she continues to use in her own work as a teacher.
“Those two opportunities were wonderful and they opened my eyes to the fact that agriculture is not just Illinois and also that there are a lot of other things to think about in the way that we raise crops, with sustainability and cultural differences,” she said.
Knupp’s work with students and on behalf of WIU continues outside the classroom, as well.
In 2015, the WIU School of Agriculture won the top prize in the Animal Agriculture Alliance’s College Aggies Online competition, where students from universities around the country participate in agriculture advocacy and outreach activities.
Knupp had the idea to compete in the event through one of the classes she still teaches, Communicating Agricultural Issues.
The WIU School of Agriculture went on to win the competition five years in a row.
In 2019, Knupp and others in the Department of Agriculture started Leatherneck Country Meats, which markets and sells meat raised on the WIU farm.
She also serves as the faculty adviser to the WIU Agricultural Mechanics, or Ag Mech, Club. The club sponsors the largest student-run farm show, conducted every March in Western Hall on the WIU campus.
She and her husband, Scott, also a WIU alumnus, have three sons. Their oldest son, who is in eighth grade, appears to be following in the family’s strong ag tradition, with his brothers, in seventh and fifth grades, close behind.
“Macomb Junior High School is lucky enough to have an exploratory ag class and he was able to get in. He got second place in our chapter for creed speaking and I am excited to see where FFA takes him,” Knupp said.
In 2017, she helped develop the WIU Aggies, an alumni group for WIU School of Agriculture alumni. Earlier this year, she was one of eight recipients of the WIU Distinguished Alumni Award.
Knupp said that seeing her students go through the WIU agriculture program and on to satisfying careers is one of the best parts of her job.
“One of the things I enjoy the most is meeting a student, whether they are in their first or second or third year of college, and watching them grow as a person. It is very rewarding to see them go off and find the career they always hoped to have and be successful,” she said.
Now, instead of being the one doing the talking, Knupp is in the audience as her former students return as alumni guest speakers.
“Now that I’ve been around here long enough, some of them come back as alumni speakers. In my mind, it wasn’t that long ago that they were a freshman and completely clueless and now they are successful and returning as alumni and that is a great feeling,” she said.