‘Long overdue’: Heartland Community College breaks ground on ag complex to help fill farming jobs
Heartland Community College officials broke ground Tuesday on a $23.4 million agriculture complex on the west side of the campus in north Normal.
Speaking to a gathering that included agriculture business leaders, government officials and educators, Heartland President Keith Cornille called it a pivotal day in the school’s history as it develops an agriculture workforce to meet a growing demand.
“Many of you here today told us about this need, this long overdue need for a facility of this nature, the need to support the present and future of a major lifeline here in central Illinois — agriculture,” said Cornille, citing McLean County as one of the nation’s leading corn and soybean producers.
The 29,500-square-foot facility will include an ag lab with roll-up doors so it can stage farm equipment, animals and drones for instruction. It also will include a plant and soil lab, a precision ag lab and additional classroom space, said Heartland’s agriculture program coordinator Miranda Buss.
Cornille said the building also can host youth programs, conferences and other community events.
Buss said Heartland’s relatively new ag program has grown steadily in recent years as the college has expanded its course offerings to include a two-year associate's degree in applied science in agriculture, along with stackable certificates in agribusiness, agronomy, precision ag and regenerative agriculture that students can obtain on their path toward a degree.
Buss said Heartland has close to 50 full-time agriculture students now and hopes to have 200 students once the new complex opens in 2024 to help satisfy demand for agriculture jobs in McLean County and across the state.
“A lot of those entities have realized that maybe a four-year degree isn’t necessary,” Buss said.
Heartland trustee Becky Ropp, a dairy farmer whose family owns and operates Ropp Jersey Cheese, said the college's expanded ag program should have a far-reaching impact in one of the region's top industries.
“There is hardly an industry or job that I can’t relate to agriculture,” Ropp told the gathering during Tuesday’s groundbreaking ceremony. “I used to say (it’s) health care, but we have benefits people in my office that are in health care as well.”
Heartland is borrowing $20 million to cover the bulk of the cost. Chris Downing, executive director of the Heartland Community College Foundation, said the school is nearly halfway toward its goal of raising $7 million in private donations. The school has secured funding and pledges from about 35 private donors, including a $2 million gift from the McLean County Farm Bureau to sponsor the ag lab.
If Heartland reaches its fundraising target, money from the bonds the school issued for construction could be used to fund other programs, according to Heartland spokesperson Steve Fast.
Heartland also received a $2 million grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Communities Fund to operate the building as a net-zero energy producer.
Sophomore Rodney Billerbeck from the Livingston County farm town of Cullom is a Heartland trustee and an agribusiness student. Billberbeck said the fact that Heartland’s ag program was in its early stages made it more appealing to him and he was proud to help cast the vote to build the ag facility this spring.
“I had options to go to colleges that had more developed ag programs, but if there’s a way that I can assist in continuing and helping new ag programs get off the ground, and that’s something you can be remembered for, that’s the legacy I want to leave,” Billerbeck said.