New real-world agricultural communications course prepares students for the future

A woman feeds a group of cattle with a bucket in a grassy field.
Olivia Charles hand-feeds a group of first-calf heifers.

Bylines are the lifeblood of journalists. With that in mind, last fall the College of Agricultural Consumer and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign launched “Advanced Agricultural Communications Composition,” designed and taught by Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communications (ALEC) professor Owen Roberts. 

Roberts partnered with agricultural communications alum Holly Spangler, editor of Prairie Farmer and executive editor of Farm Progress, to develop a course that gives students an opportunity to become published journalists in Prairie Farmer and elsewhere in the Farm Progress family of publications. 

“In our effort to help students be ready for real-world situations, we want to offer as many experiential learning opportunities as possible,” said Roberts, who is the director of agricultural communications at Illinois and central to establishing the James F. Evans Global Center for Food and Agricultural Communications.

The course is structured to echo the workload and fast pace of a journalist or communications professional, challenging students to produce well-written, newsworthy stories in a timely manner. 

As a long-time freelance writer — Roberts’ column about applied agricultural communications, “What’s Your Story?” is published monthly in Prairie Farmer — he understands the reality of this fast-paced work environment. “This course is a realistic immersion into writing as a professional,” he said. 

Throughout the course, students write up to four stories: three news stories and one opinion piece. Topic selection promotes collaboration with College of ACES faculty members; many of the news stories covered ongoing or recent research in crop sciences and animal sciences

After students receive feedback from Roberts, their stories are shared with Spangler for consideration to appear in Prairie Farmer. 

Olivia Charles, a senior in ALEC, recently published an opinion piece, “Young producers: The future of the livestock industry is in our hands,” about her own experience as a beef producer, in Prairie Farmer. 

“I am graduating from college with a completely different and more critical viewpoint of journalism than I would have had without being a part of this class,” she said.  

In addition, Maddie Heidtke, a graduate student in ALEC, has published “Livestock program takes students from campus to the farm.” More stories will follow in the coming weeks.  

This course builds skill development and critical thinking, which are two of the pillars of the agricultural communications program. It also benefits Spangler and her readers by providing fresh ideas and science-backed content for Prairie Farmer.

“The ripple effect of this course goes on — as more articles from this course are published, we are connecting agricultural researchers with readers who could benefit from their work,” Roberts said.