Pike County calls itself the "pork capital of the world." However, in an area so tied to farming, it might be a bit surprising that a local school district has cut its agriculture education program. I graduated from high school there five years ago, and went back to report on how districts are struggling to pay for activities not tied to the core curriculum.
Barry is a small western Illinois town about ten miles from the Mississippi River along Interstate 72. I grew up there. At first, I thought it was a joke when the Western High School board, my alma mater, cut ag education and band. The board says cutting both programs will save around $100,000.
About 170 students attend the high-school. And a third of them take ag classes—which teach a variety of subjects from animal biology to hands on welding.
Andy Woods was a class mate of mine and is a former president of the FFA chapter. He took me on a walk around his family farm. He says it's a shame the program was cut.
"FFA did it all, FFA and Ag. Ag in the classroom was a big part of my life, for the four years of my high-school career, you know. I dunno where I'd be without it, really," Woods said.
Woods says a lot of students latch on to the program. He has four younger siblings, all of whom are or were heavily involved in FFA and Ag. In order to join FFA, a student is required to be enrolled in an Ag class. FFA cannot have a chapter at a school without an Ag program.
It's a bright Friday morning and the garage door of the Ag Shop at Western High School is open. The shop sits behind the school, and is a large, brown, immaculate, machine shed filled with various equipment, anything from metal works to chicken coops, It's second period, welding class. Clayton Miller, a junior, is working on his final project. He's an officer for the FFA chapter. Since the ag program has been cut, he says he wants to move.
"I'm going away from this school. They don't have ag and they're switching to online school so, there's no reason to be here anymore if you can't learn from a text book and stuff," Miller said.
The school board made the cuts in anticipation of decreased state funding. It was a unanimous decision that's expected to save the district on salary and transportation costs. Western School Board president, Lorc Weir says cutting ag was a tough decision to make in a farming community.
"It wasn't necessarily what we wanted to do as a board. There's a lot of us that work in the ag industry that are on the board. You know it wasn't an easy decision at all," Weir said.
Eliminating the ag program also means the school loosing a veteran teacher.
Mary Barnes taught in Barry for 29 years and was there when the ag program first started. She says grants funded most of the operations. And since all of the equipment in the ag building was paid for by grants, she says eventually the equipment inside must be dispersed to other nearby school districts with ag programs.
"It's gonna look pretty bare when those two items are dispensed and I would assume that that would be done at the end of June, well the law says it has to be done by the end of June... So," Barnes said.
"Essentially you built this entire program?" I asked.
Yes," Barnes said.
The school board president says the district is working to try and keep the equipment in the ag shop.
In another school district, a community effort is trying to restore an ag program that was cut in the late 1980's. The Macomb Agriscience Association is working with local producers who can donate commodities at grain elevators to raise funds.
For the last two decades Macomb Ag students have had to take ag classes at a different school that's about 12 miles away.
Bruce Eidson, a researcher for the seed company Pioneer, is helping lead the local effort.
The Macomb group has a goal of 300,000 dollars. That’s seen as enough to fund the program for three years. Eidson says this may be a look into the future for extracurricular activities.
"Public education might be headed in that direction, I don't know. In order to, you know, keep some of these programs going the local community is going to have to say 'This is important to us. We want to keep it. What do we need to do to keep it?'" Eidson said.
Despite concerns about state funding for schools, state Ag education observers say they hope the future doesn't have to rely on the method Macomb is taking. But say they recognize the difficulties around the state.
Ag education funding from the state has remained flat for the last three years. However, during that time the amount of new ag programs has increased.
Back at Western High School in Pike County, the school board president says he expects the elimination of the ag program to be temporary. He says it will depend on how much the state makes available for schools.