Dr. Joel Gruver (left) and Andy Clayton, research technician, check the progress of the most recently harvest crop of the famous gold and purple popcorn at the Allison Farm, Western Illinois University’s 80-acre organic research farm in rural Macomb. The popcorn, which is harvested and packaged and sold at events like WIU’s homecoming and the Ag Mech Show, is just one way that WIU’s School of Agriculture has made itself known in the McDonough County area.
Dr. Joel Gruver (left) and Andy Clayton, research technician, check the progress of the most recently harvest crop of the famous gold and purple popcorn at the Allison Farm, Western Illinois University’s 80-acre organic research farm in rural Macomb. The popcorn, which is harvested and packaged and sold at events like WIU’s homecoming and the Ag Mech Show, is just one way that WIU’s School of Agriculture has made itself known in the McDonough County area.
MACOMB, Ill. — Hot, buttery and delicious, the gold- and purple-tinged popcorn is not just providing a snack — it’s also sending a message.

“They know who we are,” said Andy Baker, director of the School of Agriculture at Western Illinois University.

He’s talking about WIU’s School of Agriculture being nationally recognized in programs ranging from livestock to plant science.

But the purple and gold popcorn matters, too.

It’s one of the products of the Allison Farm, WIU’s 80-acre organic research farm located a few miles north of Macomb near Roseville.

The farm’s field day on Aug. 14 will include speakers on crop health and nutrition and monitoring plant health and will feature a panel featuring successful organic farmers in the region.

Larger-scale organic grain farming is just one of the many facets of McDonough County agriculture, agriculture that is reflected back by the county’s local university and research institution.

“On our farm, we grow a long list of non-GMO. In the county, there’s definitely a strong presence of non-GMO corn, and just in the last two to three years, there’s been a lot of non-GMO soybeans being grown in the county,” said Colby Hunt, of Hunt Farms in Blandinsville and president of the McDonough County Farm Bureau.

Hunt said that the primary market for the non-GMO crops is overseas, specifically Japan and Asia.

Ag Resource

Hunt Farms, like many of the county’s family farms, takes advantage of the local resources provided by WIU’s School of Agriculture and its programs.

“It’s a huge benefit. They are a resource we can call if we’ve got a question, and they can come out and look if there’s an issue in a field,” Hunt said.

He said the university’s research into concerns such as herbicide resistance is vital to county producers.

“They’ve got a lot of replicated herbicide trials that they talk about during the field day. With herbicide resistance becoming more prevalent in our area and in the state, developing the correct herbicide plans throughout the year is going to be very important,” he said.

They are doing that — and Baker hopes to be able to do more.

The School of Agriculture was the recipient last fall of a $490,000 grant from the university. That money will be used to build a greenhouse complex to serve as both an educational tool for students and local and regional ag producers, but also as a research and resource center.

“We can develop it as a resource center for cover crops and alternative crops. We can have it as a resource center so if farmers have questions on crop issues, they can call in or come and visit the center, we can take them to the greenhouse and show them what’s going on with the research,” Baker said.

Three years ago, the former Department of Agriculture changed names and became the School of Agriculture, operating, as it always has, within the College of Business and Technology at WIU.

In addition, the WIU School of Agriculture was designated as one of 12 “signature programs” at WIU.

“When you think of WIU, what do you think of?” Baker said by way of explaining the significance.

National Reach

Just as McDonough County agriculture encompasses everything from conventional and non-GMO row crop production to livestock production, the School of Agriculture encompasses those programs and extends their reach locally and nationally.

Mark Hoge is in charge of the school’s swine operation and is an associate professor of animal science.

Hoge and his family are recognized around the state for their purebred swine operation and for bringing home the hardware from national stock shows.

Recently, the Hoges also brought home the green. A Yorkshire boar raised by the Hoges and showed by Mark Hoge at a National Swine Registry show in Louisville, Ky., sold for a world-record $270,000 to a purebred swine farm in Ohio.

“The swine project and Dr. Hoge being out there in these shows is just tremendous for the program,” Baker said.

The school hosts the WIU Bull Test Program in its beef program. The bull test allows breeders to evaluate and compare their bulls’ performance against others. The program concludes with a sale of the top bulls.

What all the ag programs have in common is a hard-working staff.

“I just have a workaholic group. They don’t know how to say no,” Baker said.

The school hosts three separate field days during the summer, featuring alternative crops with Win Phippen, agronomy with Mark Barnards and organic crops and cover crops with Joel Gruver.

“We’re just as busy during the summer as we are during the class year, except during the class year, we’re a little bit more focused in one building. If you go out to the farms, you’ll find several faculty members out there all day long,” Baker said.

Phippen, along with his family, was out at the farm recently threshing, cleaning and bagging harvested pennycress.

The winter annual is becoming a darling of not just cover crop proponents, but also of the alternative fuels industry. Phippen is one of the leaders developing field pennycress lines of seed.

“Dr. Phippen is really our geneticist and our plant breeder. He is 40 percent teaching and 60 percent research. He’s in charge of the alternative crops program and research, including the field pennycress project and research and developing breeding lines,” Baker said.

Gruver and research technician Andy Clayton are in charge of the Allison Farm, the 80-acre farm near Roseville that will host the Aug. 14 field day.

The farm also grows the purple and gold popcorn that gets packaged into microwave-ready bags featuring the WIU Leatherneck mascot.

The school’s connection to McDonough County agriculture and agribusiness is on display, literally, each February when the WIU Ag Mech Club hosts the Ag Mech Show, the largest student-run farm show in the nation.

The school’s strong draw is transfer students, with WIU attracting students into the ag programs from local community colleges such as Blackhawk, John Wood and Spoon River, but also from Lakeland and Lincolnland and as far away as Joliet Junior College.

What students find is the same atmosphere that is reflected out to the local and regional farm community.

“One of the things that we take a lot of pride in is we have a family network. When you come here, you feel a part of that family network. I think a lot of students need that support and that network,” Baker said.