DECATUR — With big gloves and an enthusiastic grin, Pedro Martinez looked the part of the farmer as he sat in the driver's seat of the newest John Deere tractor.
Except the fact he was a sixth grader who has never been on a farm before.
Martinez was among more than 600 sixth-grade students from the Decatur School District who had the chance to attend the final day of the Farm Progress Show, the three-day event that brought thousands of farmers and ag enthusiasts to the Progress City USA site north of Richland Community College this week. The sprawling outdoor show, often called the "Super Bowl of farming," allowed students to visit a wide range of exhibits and learn about opportunities available to them in the agriculture industry.
“The kids are telling me, ‘wow, this is cool!’” said Decatur Public School Superintendent Paul Fregeau. “The teachers are coming out and saying, ‘We need more time here so the kids can see more.’ So, to me, that means it has been a success.”
The trip was thanks to a donation from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, which helped cover the cost of over $25,000 to transport the hundreds of students, pay their admission and have lunch at the event grounds.
The idea to have Decatur students visit the show originated years ago, said Brian Byers, the vice president of development at Neuhoff Media who helped coordinate Thursday’s trip. He said it specifically dates back to an observation he made when Decatur first hosted the Farm Progress Show in 2005. The city hosts the show every other year, alternating with Boone, Iowa.
“I saw all these school buses from across the Midwest, but I didn't see any from Decatur schools,” he said.
The long-held goal finally came together this year thanks to the foundation's help along with partners such as Sloan Implements, Tate & Lyle, Archer Daniels Midland Co. and Limitless Decatur. The sponsors were able to cover the expense of the trip at no cost to the school district, Byers said.
Before they explored the show, students heard from CaSandra Carter, an executive assistant at ADM’s Chicago headquarters, about how one can enter the industry even without growing up on a farm.
Carter told the students she grew up in Chicago surrounded by concrete, with no livestock or crops in sight, and little interest in agriculture.
After persistent encouragement from her parents, Carter enrolled in a Chicago high school dedicated to agriculture. At first, she promised her parents she would try the school for one year.
But a decade later, Carter was earning her master's degree in plant science and international agriculture and rural development at Cornell University, and traveling the world working in the agriculture field.
“We have so many jobs out there that are available, and we need people like you to consider what the possibilities,” Carter said “Don’t think that when you hear the word ‘farming’ or ‘agriculture’ that there is only one type of career path. I am a living example that there are many ways to join the field.”
Exhibitors did what they could to grab the attention of the students as they walked by, ranging from free popcorn at Bayer’s tent to a scavenger hunt at ADM’s exhibit.
The chance to host the visitors provided a great way to introduce local students to the important role that agriculture plays in their daily lives, said Linda Fultz, who works in marketing communications at ADM.
“Most everything we eat is thanks to agriculture,” she said. “This is a great introduction to them about that importance.”
The event was eye-opening for students like Sanara Hollgarth, who said her experience with agriculture are the few times she has visited a farm. She said she had a lot of fun at the event, especially since it allowed her to walk around outside.
“I love to exercise, so being able to walk around out here is fun,” she said.
The hope is Thursday's event will be just the beginning in introducing local students to the agricultural opportunities in Decatur and throughout the world. In addition, Byers hopes it will lead to Decatur School District finally having its own program through Illinois FFA, an organization whose members are enrolled in agricultural education classes at the middle school, high school or postsecondary level.
“We have kids that live just two miles away from all these world leaders in agriculture, but it's like they're on a different planet from them,” he said. “We want to do a better job of taking ag to the community.”
While neither Martinez or Hollgarth said Thursday's trip changed their own career plans to join the military and the FBI, respectively, they said the trip did make them more interested in how much agriculture impacts their daily lives.
“I'll definitely pay more attention to it in the future,” Martinez said.