Feature News

Students study sustainable farming over D-Term

Amanda Cortese '17

Dec 14, 2016

Conventional and organic farming, robotic dairy and shrimp farming, whiskey distilling, wholesale prairie and apple tasting. These were on the syllabus for a unique December Term experience, “Not Hicks! Introduction to Agribusiness.”

In the same time that it takes to ride the train east into downtown Chicago, North Central College students traveled west to the vast farmlands of Malta, Ill., to visit six farms that use a variety of techniques to maintain sustainability.

“What really surprised me was that there are so many farms so close to us,” said Craig Chinchilla ’20.

The trip was led by Mary Beth Ressler, North Central College associate professor of education and Malta native. She grew up on one of the farms that the class visited, Schweitzer Farms. A conventional farm, it is currently owned and operated by her dad, Paul, and brother, Mike. The group toured the property and learned about the innovative and sustainable farming practices used there, including strip tilling and GPS precision farming. “From the time I saw the farm as we drove up, I knew that I was going to learn something,” said Zach Kirby ’17. “The high level of farming expertise was apparent from first sight.”

Students’ second stop was the Buchholz farm, which utilizes robotics in its dairy operations. It gave students insight into an industry rarely found in the Midwest: shrimp farming. The Buchholzes said they decided to try raising shrimp because the hog industry didn’t look promising. They repurposed their hog shed into a temperature-controlled room with giant pools—the ideal environment for shrimp. “I would have never thought shrimp could be farmed in Illinois, but the Buchholzes are out to prove otherwise,” said Molly Fraser ’19.

Students also learned about agribusiness at Whiskey Acres, a whiskey distillery and corn farm. Jamie Walter, cofounder of Whiskey Acres, grew up on the farm and previously practiced law. He uses consulting from Dave Pickerell, the former master distiller at Maker’s Mark, to perfect his whiskey operation. All the whiskey is made on site from corn grown on the Walter Farm, making it one of the only operations in Illinois to oversee the entire process from seed to whiskey. Leftover grains are sent to a local hog farmer or used as fuel on the farm, leaving little to no waste.

“This operation was so interesting to me because Jamie is very business-minded. He understands how to negate systematic risk, while managing his assets and revenues. This is truly the core of all economic and financial business theories,” said Kirby, an accounting and finance double major.

The variety of agricultural approaches—which also included agritourism at Jonamac Orchard, organic farming at Aaron and Paul Butler’s farm, and horticulture at Country Road Greenhouses, a wholesale native prairie business—were as diverse as the majors of students who took this course. Some students are science majors exploring the chemical regulations involved in farming. Others are business majors who saw the importance of agricultural marketing and sales negotiations. Sociology and anthropology majors observed the interactions between neighboring and competing farmers in the community. There were plenty of lessons to be learned in this trip, which is the goal of North Central’s D-Term Verandah courses. Faculty design Verandah experiences to be intellectually and personally stimulating to students.

Ressler enjoyed returning to her roots to share knowledge from her farming background and learning about new, sustainable farming techniques and unique operations. “I truly loved teaching the class and learning alongside the students,” she said.

By Amanda Cortese ’17