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Finding common ground: Extension connects public with agriculture

a young white girl and white boy hold baby chicks in front of a tub holding more chicks

URBANA, Ill. – Whether large commercial agriculture operations, small farms, or community and backyard gardens, the future of our food supply relies on the use of practices that boost production and capacity. Illinois growers at all levels benefit from effective, efficient, and sustainable approaches to cultivating produce, crops, and livestock that feed their families, communities, and the world.

Illinois Extension helps agricultural workers understand and apply research-based best practices while also working to connect communities to their local agricultural resources through youth and public outreach programs.

Ag in the classroom supports educators, informs youth

With 75% of Illinois devoted to farmland, large and small agricultural operations contribute to a vital economy. Illinois Extension staff around the state lead programs for youth and educators to raise awareness about agriculture’s importance.

  • Extension staff in Hancock County helped area teachers explore nontraditional agriculture in Western Illinois by touring an area alpaca ranch, flower farm, candle company, and vineyard last year. The teachers were provided with ideas and resources to apply in their classrooms. 
  • The Macoupin County Agricultural Literacy program is celebrating 25 years of providing youth programs and professional development opportunities for teachers. In 2021, the program reached 2,657 students and 551 educators.
  • When the COVID-19 pandemic made in-person programs for youth impossible in 2021, Mercer County Extension program coordinator Teresa Kirwan pivoted. She distributed hundreds of monthly Ag Literacy kits with seasonal lessons, Ag Mags, and hands-on activities to schools, day cares, home school groups, libraries, and other youth organizations.
  • In Christian and Montgomery counties, students in 4th to 6th grades strengthened their science, engineering, technology, and math skills while learning about Illinois pumpkin production.

Hatching an idea: From egg to chick, embryology reveals the circle of life

Thanks to the 4-H Chick Incubation and Embryology program, thousands of elementary students across Illinois learn by doing. Teachers are trained to conduct classroom projects alongside 4-H staff. In Boone, Dekalb, Ogle counties alone, 1,592 youth successfully hatched 757 chicks in 2021. Ten classrooms in Henry and Putnam county schools were provided with eggs, incubators, and lecture materials.

During the 21-day incubation period, students learned how to prepare eggs, set up an incubator, record progress, turn eggs, and test eggs for fertility. By caring for chicks, students learn about biology, the life-cycle process as well as kindness, respect, and accountability.


Communities explore agricultural roots

Master Urban Farmers grow food, leaders, and community

In Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, the El Paseo Community Garden is thriving. The 1.5-acre site has accessible raised beds, a native prairie strip, a permaculture garden and 10 irrigated rows for food production.

“This garden is a work of love,” says Paula Acevedo who has run the garden since 2015.

Acevedo is a 2016 graduate of the Illinois Extension Cook County Master Urban Farmer Training. The program prepares aspiring urban farmers by giving them a better understanding of what it takes to start and manage an urban farm.

Applying what she learned, Acevedo refined the garden’s master plan, doubled production, and facilitated its growth through numerous grants. She also credits their use of community-based design workshops that involve Pilsen area residents for much of the garden’s growth.

More about Illinois Extension in Cook County.

  • Northern Illinois Farm Stroll invites people back to the farm: The 2021 McHenry County Farm Stroll had record-breaking attendance with more than 1,000 people taking free self-guided tours of 12 area family farms. Attendees learned how meat, fruit, and vegetables are produced up close. The family-friendly tour featured fruit and vegetable growers, dairy cows and beef cattle, chickens and turkeys, horses, honeybees, and more. More about Illinois Extension in McHenry County.
  • Home gardeners turn to virtual Grow Your Own Groceries series: During the COVID-19 pandemic, concerns about food access and more time at home motivated many to start gardening. But many new gardeners had little knowledge or experience. Starting in March 2021, Master Gardener coordinators Nancy Kuhajda and Holly Froning for Grundy, Kankakee, and Will counties led a 10-week series called Grow Your Own Groceries. Each live online session focused on the process of growing a fruit or vegetable: seed selection, planting, growing, harvesting, storage, and preservation. Garden-to-Go kits provided more resources and seeds.  More about Illinois Extension in Grundy, Kankakee, and Will Counties.


Farming for the future: Extension innovates with ag professionals

Robots inspire a new generation of farmers

The ag industry is turning to tech for innovations that will help feed the world. The Coles County Extension FarmBot Project is helping students learn about robotics, nutrition, soil science, biology, and coding. An ongoing collaboration between students, educators, industry experts, and volunteers, the FarmBot system is being built and trained to automatically plant seeds, water, and monitor plants.

More about Illinois Extension in Coles, Cumberland, Douglas, Moultrie, and Shelby counties

  • Pesticide training: To help ag professionals stay up to date on required certifications, the Illinois Extension Pesticide Safety Education Program provides training and testing opportunities. County offices often offer workbooks and testing sessions.
  • Southern Illinois farm tours: Summer Twilight tours give local growers the chance to network and tour area farms including Dixon Springs Agricultural Center in Simpson. The highlighted crop and production systems included strawberry plasticulture production, high tunnel vegetable production and biological insect pest control options, equipment used in no-till vegetable production, and rotational grazing techniques for small-scale cattle production.
    More about Illinois Extension in Gallatin, Hamilton, Hardin, Pope, Saline, and White counties
About Extension

Illinois Extension leads public outreach for University of Illinois by translating research into action plans that allow Illinois families, businesses, and community leaders to solve problems, make informed decisions, and adapt to changes and opportunities.