University News

Ag Alumnus Keeps Profession Interesting, Challenging for Students

August 14, 2007

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MACOMB, IL -- Livestock and crops only a small part of Howard Heavner's agriculture education program at Valmeyer (IL) High School.

Heavner, a 1982 Western Illinois University graduate, has taught at Valmeyer for the past 25 years, earning several awards and recognitions for his unique approaches to agriculture education. Heavner's programs were spotlight by CNN in Fall 2006.

While many school's agriculture and FFA programs may consist of a small greenhouse or a herd of sheep, Heavner has brought aquaculture, computer labs, a vineyard, a farm and a major green house operation to the southern Illinois high school.

"We operate the greenhouse and aquaculture projects as a business. We sell mums, poinsettias and bedding plants, which yield an annual profit of more than $10,000, which is used to purchase more equipment for our program," he explained. "We also sell catfish, bass and tilapia."

When the Flood of '93 destroyed Valmeyer, the city of nearly 900 was relocated to the top of the river bluffs. A new school was built, giving Heavner the opportunity to design and build the agriculture facilities. His vision was to create a program that would continue to sustain itself and be available to future generations of students.

"From then on, one year we might build a greenhouse, buy another fish tank or purchase more equipment. The kids in my class believe the greenhouse, the vineyard and much of what we have belongs to them," Heavner said. "They have pride in ownership."

Heavner's vision for a unique agriculture program stemmed from his belief that agriculture, as an industry, continually and dramatically changes each year, and students must be kept current -- and even ahead of the game.

"I love to be challenged, and by creating and teaching these new programs, I have that opportunity. I want to pass those challenges and the passion for this field to my students," he said.

Heavner's love of agriculture -- and his natural progression into the field of ag education -- began as a youth when his father, Robert, was his agriculture professor at Valmeyer. The junior Heavner was Valmeyer FFA's vice president and president, and he worked on a farm throughout high school and college. Howard received his FFA Degree in 1978, the same year he graduated from Valmeyer High. After graduating from Western, Heavner received his master's degree from Southern Illinois.

Heavner took over his father's classroom upon the senior Heavner's retirement; however, his father remained his "boss" as principal of Valmeyer.

"I was so lucky to have the opportunity to watch my father teach agriculture," he said. "That gave me an incredible respect for the profession, and it made me want to try to be the very best teacher I could be."

Heavner took that goal of being the best teacher he could be and imparted on his students the drive to succeed. Since Howard took over the ag program, more than 80 Valmeyer FFA members have received their Illinois FFA Degree and more than 200 members have won Section SAE Awards, while the Valmeyer chapter has been a Gold Emblem Chapter for the past 14 consecutive years.

Heavner's awards are numerous, including Illinois FFA Outstanding Young Member, Illinois FFA Outstanding Agriculture Teacher (selected twice), Region IV National Association of Agriculture Educators (NAAE) Outstanding Agriculture Teacher and State of Illinois Excellence in Teaching. He received his Honorary Illinois FFA Degree in 1993 and three years later, his Honorary American FFA Degree. He was recently presented the Illinois Association of Vocational Agriculture Teachers' 25-Year Service Award.

As if teaching a successful agriculture education program isn't enough to keep Heavner busy, he also coaches junior high baseball and basketball teams, has served as Valmeyer's mayor since 2005 and has helped to raise five children, ages ranging from 12-25, who have all been active in the agriculture program.

"My children and my students keep me grounded so I don't have to worry about success going to my head," Heavner said. "I'll keep doing what I love to do until I retire … and that's teach agriculture."

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