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A sign that appeared near the Western Illinois University Farm. Photo Courtesy of Western Illinois University School of Agriculture (
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An old photo of the house located near the Agriculture Field Laboratory on the University Farm. Today, Bruce Engnell, who has worked on the farm since 1967, lives in the house with his wife.
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Bruce Engnell and a WIU student at the bull barn, where the bulls are kept for the School of Ag's annual bull test. More information about the bull test is available at
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School of Ag Celebrates 90 Years of Four-Year Ag Program at "Ag Day" Oct. 31

October 27, 2009

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MACOMB, IL -- "Our grounds are ample for all experimental work and the Elements of Agriculture could be studied without large expense. That the teachers be qualified to present at least the rudiments and principles of the branch is being more and more demanded in rural schools." -- Excerpt from the Dec. 31, 1904, Biennial Report for the Trustees of the Western Illinois State Normal School, as cited in the October 1950 Western Illinois State College Bulletin, "A Functional Program in Agriculture for a State College"

In 1919, two years before the Illinois General Assembly approved a name change from "Western Illinois State Normal School" to "Western Illinois State Teachers College," what we know now as Western Illinois University began offering a full four-year curriculum for those who would teach high school agriculture.

Ninety years later, what is now the School of Agriculture at WIU not only prepares students for careers in agricultural education, but it also offers 12 other programs of study, including degree programs in agriculture and international agriculture, agricultural business, agricultural technology management, animal science, agronomy, horticulture, natural resources and urban forestry and pre-professional programs in agricultural engineering, forestry and veterinary medicine.

A Growing Need
From the time the Western Illinois State Normal School (WISNS) opened its doors to students in 1902, WISNS educators recognized a need "for Domestic Science and Agriculture courses for those preparing to teach in the agricultural section of our State." According to the October 1950 edition of the Western Illinois State College Bulletin (p. 9), "As a result of this recognition by the Faculty and Teachers College Board, plans were made, in 1904, to prepare the basement rooms and the grounds for the introduction of these courses."

Although the four-year agricultural curriculum was still more than a decade away at that point, the first course in agriculture at the Western Illinois State Normal School was called "Elementary Agriculture." Organized by John T. Johnson and offered through the geography department, the course was available to students beginning in the spring of 1907 "after the completion of the work on the building and grounds," stated the Oct. 1950 Bulletin.

The Bulletin also noted the 1919 establishment of the full four-year curriculum in agriculture resulted from a rapid increase of the number of ag courses from the years 1916-1918. In 1920, what was then the Department of Biology and Agriculture was divided into two separate departments, and W. A. Cleveland "was made head of the Department of Agriculture--a position which he held until 1927."

The Form of the Farm
Over the years, the department and its curriculum continued to change based on what was happening in the agriculture industry.

"From a fundamental standpoint, agriculture around the United States has changed," explained William Bailey, director of the School of Agriculture. "Farms that were diversified -- which had livestock, poultry and crops -- have become more specialized. You also very seldom see chickens anymore, and while there are very few dairy farms, very few people have dairy cattle, unless they operate larger farms. So, over time, agriculture has evolved from farms with complex production systems with a lot of different animals and plants to farms that are more mono-culture, marketing their products to a very specific part of the industry."

To reflect the changes in the agricultural industry, Bailey noted, also over time, WIU's agricultural curriculum and facilities have morphed in order to prepare ag students for the agriculture world they find outside of academia.

"When individual farms had more diversity, the University's facilities and curriculum reflected this diversity. For example, we had a dairy here at one time, and we had a poultry facility here. We also used to grow a lot of oats and rye," Bailey explained. "Today, we grow corn and soybeans. There are still more diversified farms operating in the industry, for example, organic farming operations, such as our Allison Organic Research and Demonstration Farm. But in the mainstream agricultural industry, much of the production is specialized in nature," he said.

To help prepare 21st-century ag students for this industry full of specialized niches, the School of Agriculture's facilities continue to provide hands-on and research-oriented opportunities at its Agriculture Field Laboratory (AFL), which is located on Tower Road, about a mile north of WIU's Macomb campus.

Before 1948, most of the agricultural "experimental" work performed on the "grounds" at Western was done where some of the campus buildings (Leslie F. Malpass Library, Morgan and Stipes halls) stand now. In March 1948, the University purchased "a ninety-acre college agricultural farm" approximately one mile north of campus. Known as the Braun farm before it was purchased, "Here, under the management of a general farmer who was added to the staff in 1949, are kept a herd of purebred Guernsey cattle and some registered Hampshire hogs. Cropping, fertility and conservation demonstrations are also carried on here," stated the Oct. 1950 Western Bulletin. According to "First Century: A Pictorial History of Western Illinois University," by WIU Professor Emeritus John Hallwas, in 1957, an additional 183 acres was purchased and added to the AFL.

Less than 10 years later, in 1967, Bruce Engnell was hired to manage the swine operations on the AFL. Engnell, who now manages the University Farm, lives in the farmhouse just east of the Western Illinois University President's House, near the farm. Over Engnell's long career at WIU, he has had the opportunity to work with thousands of agriculture students and been a first-hand witness to the changes at the University Farm in the latter part of the 20th century and early part of the 21st century.

"When I first started here, there was a boar station, but because the hog business has gotten so specialized, we no longer have that. These days, we have feed efficiency tests for bulls, rams and even for goats, as the demand for goat meat in the U.S. is increasing," Engnell said. "We also have a lamb sale every year, and Dr. Gordon Roskamp and Dr. Win Phippen utilize some of the acreage for their research investigating weed control and alternative crops."

Engnell said that working with the students and the everyday activity going on at the University Farm has made his work significantly more than just a way to take home a steady paycheck.

"I used to tell people I had the best job in the state, but Doc Baker [Andrew Baker, professor in WIU's School of Agriculture] might argue with me about that. He tells people that he has the best job in the state," Engnell noted with a smile. "I guess I have always felt that I am here because of the students. I like to think that we prepare them for their lives in agriculture as best as we possibly can, both in the classroom and on the farm."

During Engnell's time at Western, the AFL has not only changed in regard to the kinds of livestock and cropping activities that occur there on a daily basis, but it has also shifted a bit in terms of its geography. In August 1999, Dr. Lawrence M. Kerr and Mrs. Judith Kerr donated an additional 219 acres to WIU's agriculture department. The gift from Kerr, who was an ophthalmologist in private practice in Macomb, and his wife, Judith Kerr, who is on the WIU Foundation Board of Directors, included "a house, barns, grain bins and other structures," according to the August 31, 1999, edition of Centennial News. The donation enabled the expansion of the AFL (beyond the 273 acres it had as of the University's 1957 183-acre purchase) and kept it from losing any acreage due to the expansion of the Harry Mussatto Golf Course. The golf course, which is adjacent to the AFL, was able to add nine holes, and the ag department's AFL was able to continue "serving as a classroom and lab for more than 300 WIU undergraduate and numerous agriculture organizations," noted the Centennial News.

Western Illinois University School of AgricultureA View from the Top
Over the years, the agriculture curriculum at WIU has had 14 chairpersons, beginning with Harry D. Waggoner, who was the chair of the Department of Biology and Agriculture from 1917-1920. In 1920, a year after the full four-year agriculture education curriculum was established, W.A. Cleveland was appointed head of the department, a position that he held until 1927. Following Cleveland was C.H. Oathout, who chaired the department from 1927-1946.

Rodney Fink, who came to Western in 1968, was appointed chair in 1972. Fink noted that during his time as a faculty member and as the chairperson, the department underwent a great deal of change, which reflected some of the social changes that were taking place in the workforce and in society at large.

"At that time, we experienced a significant increase in enrollment in the department," Fink explained. "Part of that was due to the number of women who were starting to enroll in the agriculture programs of study. I don't know what the numbers were exactly, but I do remember that we basically started seeing a significant percentage of women coming into the department to study agriculture and horticulture."

Fink said that the enrollment increase was also likely attributable to the number of international students who were coming to Western to study agriculture.

"During Dr. Elsner's time as chair of the department [1965-1967], the department benefited from some federal grants through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Dr. Elsner and Dr. Knoblauch both worked to get these grants, and these programs brought in mainly African students, although not exclusively African students. My feeling was that students from Illinois needed to know that there was a world outside of Illinois, and so we worked quite a bit to increase the number of foreign students, which, again, was part of that growth."

Fink chaired the agriculture department through 1974, after which he was appointed Dean of the College of Applied Sciences, which then included the agriculture department. Fink retired in 1990.

Another department chair, H. Edward Breece (chair from 1977-1989) started out his life at Western as a student.

"Dr. John McVickar [chair from 1946-1965] and Dr. Loren Robinson [chair from 1974-1977] came to the department in 1941. I was a student in the department from 1954 to 1956, and I had both of these men as professors. I, along with 18 others, transferred to the University of Illinois, as we wanted to be agriculture teachers at the secondary level. At that time, the only place you could get certification to teach 'vocational agriculture' was at the University of Illinois. I considered Dr. McVickar and Dr. Robinson the backbone of this department until they retired," Breece said.

According to Breece, he returned to Western and started as a faculty member in 1965. "I began work immediately on getting the department certified to train agriculture teachers, so they wouldn't have to transfer as I had done," he added.

Almost a Century Later
While from the beginning agriculture was deemed as a necessary curriculum for Western, in 2009 the University's School of Agriculture offers students significantly more than it did 90 years ago. There are 14 student organizations, ranging from Agricultural Education club to the Horticulture Club to the renowned Livestock Judging Team. These clubs and organizations provide ways for students to not only interact with their fellow agriculture peers, but also provide them with opportunities for hands-on and leadership work experience in the various facets that comprise the industry today. For example, the School of Agriculture continues to hold its annual Farm Expo, which is the largest student-run farm show in the United States. (In February 2010, the Annual Farm Expo will celebrate its 39th year.).

In addition to the many student organizations, the School of Ag also boasts some dynamic and innovative research projects, such as the organic farming techniques practiced at the Allison Organic Research and Demonstration Farm; the research into such alternative crops as milkweed; the investigation into the emerging market for goat meat (known as "chevon") in the U.S.; and the weed control research trials held at the University Farm.

In 2009, Western Illinois University's School of Agriculture has certainly come a long way from that first "Elementary Agriculture" offered in 1907 and even from that 1919 establishment of the full-four year agriculture program. With more than 300 students, 25 faculty and staff members, a new designation -- the department was renamed the "School of Agriculture" as of July 1 this year -- and a plethora of research and hands-on activities for students and faculty, the School of Agriculture is poised to continue to provide a quality agriculture education to students from across the state and from around the globe for the next 90 years and beyond.

For more information, contact WIU's School of Agriculture at (309) 298-1080. Visit the School of Ag online at

Posted By: Teresa Koltzenburg (
Office of University Communications & Marketing