ACES alumni establish new ag education program, building for high school students

Students and teachers at Meridian High School break ground for new agriculture building and pose for photo

URBANA, Ill.The College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has been a leader in agricultural education since its founding, turning out scores of teachers who inspire the next generation. Now, an ACES alumnus has helped revitalize agricultural education in his local district with the development of an agriculture education building and program at Meridian High School in Macon, Illinois.

Duane Noland, a 1978 agricultural economics and education graduate and retired Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives CEO, spearheaded the fundraising effort that made it all possible.

The Meridian School District was formed from the merger of the Blue Mound and Macon schools in 1994. Each had previously offered ag education and FFA chapters, and there was interest in continuing those programs in the district — which had gone without agricultural programming for nearly 30 years. 

In 2022, the Meridian School District broke ground to build a new state-of-the-art school. “So this school district, as they were emerging and developing their curriculum, realized agriculture education was an opportunity the students needed. But the dilemma was the school had used the state's school construction bond program, which meant they had no money left to build an ag building,” Noland said.

In response, Noland and a group of contributors formed the Meridian Ag Foundation, setting a goal of $1.5 million in support of new student agriculture facilities. The fundraiser quickly gained attention, and 350 donors later, Noland and the Meridian Ag Foundation accomplished that goal. 

“It was humbling to see this area rise to the occasion, and although we were able to get some foundation funding from larger organizations, by and large, it was local farm and family business people — individuals in the area who believed that ag education, introduction to skilled trades, and FFA leadership opportunities were valuable,” Noland said.

ACES alum Jerry Brockett, a 2019 agricultural leadership, education and communications graduate, is the first agriculture teacher and FFA advisor at Meridian High School.

After five years, the program has grown and now serves about 120 students daily, with around 70 opting to participate in FFA-related activities and events year-round.

“I'm really excited for these kids to get the opportunities they would not have had otherwise — and I'm excited for all the people who are taking the initiative to invest in students of the future by contributing to ag education,” Brockett said. “There are always jobs open, and the world is always expanding, and so, in ag education, there's always something new happening.”

Brockett added that the program was well received when introduced and has become essential to many students’ education. With the new space and program, Brockett hopes some of those students will find the spark that introduces them to future careers in the agricultural industry.

“A student may not see themself as a mathematician, but they could come into my room and calculate the amount of nitrogen that's in a fertilizer bag and feel accomplished and excited about figuring something out,” Brockett said. “I hope my classroom provides the opportunities to succeed that students might not get elsewhere.”

To Noland, agriculture education holds a significant place for Illinois students, and he’s excited to see agriculture education expand in years to come.

“Agriculture is the largest employment sector, and we're in the heartland of Illinois — we're the breadbasket of the world. There are so many opportunities in agriculture, and introducing students to agriculture classes, FFA leadership, and training opportunities allows them to develop a better focus on their career, and if they choose to continue their education, helps them choose a curriculum,” Noland said. “We have built an affinity group that will always be excited, and we want to see it thrive and prosper for years to come.”

ACES is a great fit for students who are looking to discover agriculture education. Explore our student opportunities and apply for regular admission by Jan. 5, 2024.