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Agriculture Program celebrates four decades of success, looks to the future

INA, Ill. (May 16, 2016) – On the tails of another successful year, Rend Lake College’s Agriculture program celebrated its 40th Annual Agriculture Banquet, held last month in Waugh Gymnasium, to honor students, faculty, and staff for another year well done.

Now, with nearly 100 students in five programs – Ag Business, Ag Production and Management, Ag Mechanics, Diesel Technology, and Heavy Equipment – the Agriculture Division remains a steady force of the college, though the program started with much more humble beginnings.

The year is 1968 and a group of future RLC greats are huddled in one small, “closet-sized” room in the old Bonnie Grade School gymnasium preparing for their first classes. The gym floor, a beautiful hardwood, is just starting to get more use as nine students – possibly more, depending on who you ask – were the first to crack open a set of agriculture textbooks and break in new equipment.

A few miles away, only going on its second year as RLC instead of Mt. Vernon Community College, ground was breaking on a plot of land in Ina, but it would be five more years before the Ag program found its way home.

For Dave Scott, retired Ag Mechanics Instructor and current Advisory Board member, this scene doesn’t seem like 48 years in the past. An integral part of the flourishing program’s early beginnings, Scott took a trip down memory lane to show just how far the program has come.

Scott was initially a teacher in the agriculture program at Sesser High School when he volunteered to petition for RLC’s formation in 1968.

“When the junior college was forming, I was asked to carry a petition for the western part of our (Sesser) school district, and I spent many afternoons with people getting signatures for Rend Lake to be formed,” explained Scott. “In 1968, I was invited to serve on Rend Lake’s Ag Advisory Board, and then in the spring of 1969, I was invited to apply for the position of Ag Mechanics Instructor. I didn’t have my master’s degree at the time, but I was going to finish it up in the summer, so I applied and was hired.”

For the first few years of Scott’s job, the Ag programs – then only Ag Business and Ag Mechanics – were still located in the old Bonnie Grade School. Specifically, he taught diesel fuel systems in a lab setting, then located in a renovated women’s bathroom.

“It was not an adequate space. When we were searching for a place to put it, that was the best we could find. It met our needs, but we were back-to-back in there,” said Scott. “I felt very comfortable teaching those classes at the high school level, so I had to step up and develop that program. It has really expanded since then.”

When RLC moved from Mt. Vernon to the current Ina campus for Fall 1970 classes, the agriculture programs didn’t come with it. Along with cosmetology, nursing, and automotive programs, Ag found its home outside in the community. The work of Mother Nature eventually put the program on the fast track to Ina.

Though construction had begun on the Vocational Building, the future home for the Ag program, in the spring of 1971, it wouldn’t be finished in September of 1973, just in time to start the fall semester. In that same spring – on April 12 to be exact – Scott recalls the tornado that changed everything.

“That tornado blew the building away very near the end of our term. The students were placed with employers by then, doing their on-the-job training, but we still had some uncompleted projects in the shop,” said Scott. “We moved into the maintenance building, which had just burned out in a fire. We didn’t feel the diesel lab could be moved, so they were still taught at the Bonnie campus through 1974. That was not a good situation because we had no heat in the building.”

According to RLC archives, the tornado ripped through the school and brought the shop’s roof to the floor, which luckily had been replaced with concrete a few years earlier. The diesel lab moved to the Ina campus when the Vocational Building opened the following semester.

Despite working in two locations and dealing with some damaged equipment, the Ag programs continued to grow. RLC’s Ag programs are recognized as the first on campus to promote on-the-job training, form advisory boards, and host year-end Awards Banquets that draw dozens of students, families, and supporters.

“The students were very, very cooperative. They were ‘how high do you want us to jump?’ Just a fantastic group,” said Scott of his first class. “It was all very new and it was a challenge. I was probably only two days ahead of the students in planning. I was hired in mid-summer so I had to get things ready to go. When the semester started, I didn’t know what the end was going to be, but we all got there.”

An alumni event was held in July of 2008, where approximately 30 graduates, administrators, faculty, and staff gathered to reminisce about the Ag program. It was there that retired RLC President Mark Kern, Ag Instructor starting in 1968 and president from 1991-2008, jokingly argued with former Dean Carroll Turner about how many students enrolled in the Fall of 1968. Kern says that number was just nine.

“I think we hit double digits,” Turner replied.

“I don’t remember it being that good,” Kern chuckled.

But the program quickly gained steam and enrollment increased, a trait it’s continued to support in recent years.

“People would drive from Salem and Nashville … to come to the Rend Lake College Ag program,” Kern said.

Now, Agriculture Associate Professor Kathy Craig says that number stands around 100 in an average year for all five programs.

“Enrollment has been pretty steady, at least for the past eight years I’ve been here,” said Craig. “There are a lot from out-of-district with some from Clinton and St. Clair counties. Many of the community colleges west of us don’t have Ag programs, so those students come to us. We have 11 coming from Millstadt next year, but the furthest this year are two from Tennessee and four from Indiana.”

In 2015, the programs saw 90 students, 33 of whom came from out-of-district. Those numbers remain steady going back several years. In 2010, there were 105 Ag students with 33 from out-of-district. In 2005, it was 92 and 27 respectively. The enrollment numbers do not include high school students enrolled in dual credit classes at Hamilton County, Mt. Vernon, Sesser-Valier, Waltonville, and Wayne City high schools.

The four RLC students from Indiana are currently studying in RLC’s Heavy Equipment program, Craig said, and as for the students from Tennessee, they simply searched for Ag programs in community colleges surrounding them, and RLC seemed like the best option.

“They typed in ‘agriculture’ and ‘community college’ and we were right at the top,” said Craig. “I think because we are an Aspen Institute college and we promote our classes and events, we are one of the top community colleges near them. We’re in competition with some technical colleges in the area, they’re our biggest competition, but our tuition is much lower.”

For students interested in several different programs, tuition can sometimes be the decision-maker. Craig said she has had several students this year and next who are dual or even triple majoring at RLC.

“That’s been a huge shift, because we are definitely seeing students dual or triple majoring, especially on the mechanics side. We’re seeing a lot more than before,” said Craig.

Craig said it’s a change in the students’ mindset to thinking ahead and making plans for their futures.

“I think our students are realizing how they can be more employable that way; have more skills,” said Craig. “Instead of just focusing on Ag Mechanics, now they’ve also got experience with semi-trucks and construction equipment from Heavy Equipment. More farmers are starting to have that type of equipment on their farm too. They’re seeing it as having a bigger skill set.”

Right now, Craig said she has two students who will walk away next year with five associate degrees. In reality, only a handful of classes separate the degrees, and while those classes cost both time and money, it’s something RLC students are finding worthwhile.

“The opportunities are endless when it comes to their degrees. When any student comes to my office to talk about classes, I want them to know there are options out there. If they want one degree, that’s fine, and if they want all five, that’s great too. Our goal is to give them all the information to make their own decisions here,” said Craig.

And what they do after graduation sometimes plays into those decisions, added Craig.

“We went from a majority of our students being farm kids to a majority not raised on a farm. It’s a flip-flop in the ratio and a major shift in their background,” said Craig. “Sometimes they are looking for experience to take back to the family farm and sometimes they’re wanting to get out and work for a dealership or private business.”

For Craig and the other Ag program instructors, having dedicated space to teach both kinds of students is vital. In the Fall of 2005, the Mark S. Kern Applied Science Center (ASC) opened on the southwest corner of the Ina campus. The 22,300-square-foot, $2.7 million facility is home to all five of the Ag programs and includes many classrooms, office space, and workshops. Before 2005, the programs shared space in the Vocational Building on the northwest corner of campus with the Architecture, Automotive, and Graphic Design programs.

Scott said, even during the days in the Vocational Building, the Ag program was a true force on campus. Though the new facility would be built 20 years after his retirement, Scott knew at the end of his time at RLC (1993-94 academic year), there would need to be more space to grow.

“We were really able to enhance the program because we had one of the better lab facilities south of Peoria. The college really promoted the programs by putting some money into them and giving them the opportunity to develop as they should,” said Scott. “We knew we were outgrowing the current facility and we could no longer grow if we stayed there. It was just discussion at that point of moving and building west or adding space.”

Craig added of the new facility, “It was very close quarters (in the Vocational Building), but the ASC is so much easier for us. We have our offices in the building, so we see the students all the time. It’s easier for us as instructors as well because we aren’t having to rotate classrooms as frequently.”

Just last year, RLC updated the annual RAMP (Resource Allocation Management Plan) document to include an addition to the ASC. RLC submits the document to the Illinois Community College Board every year as a type of “wish list” of projects to be completed if funding is available at the state level.

Renovations aren’t the only thing that may be changing in the future. Craig said as technology becomes more efficient, the programs will likely adjust to keep up with industry standards.

“Ag isn’t changing, the technology is and it will be for some time. For instance, they’re still developing autonomous tractors,” said Craig. “All of the equipment is constantly changing, but we have some fantastic industry partners who work with us for that. They want their employees to be versed in the newest thing, so they offer their services to us to visit their dealerships and learn. Everyone is trying to work together.”

RLC President Terry Wilkerson, a Rend Lake College Ag graduate, former Ag Instructor and former department chair, spoke highly of the agriculture programs.

“Agriculture has been a main stay in the region and a strength for the college over the years. We will continue to respond to the changing needs of all our students, while maintaining hands-on training and real world experiences that set our programs apart,” said Wilkerson.

To learn more about RLC’s Ag programs, contact Kathy Craig at 618-437-5321, Ext. 1066 or [email protected].