Illinois has more than 76,000 farms that cover more than 28 million acres of land. Nearly 80 percent of the state’s total land area is dedicated to farming.
Because of that, and the role agriculture plays in the state’s economy, ag education plays a vital role in rural communities across the state.
But education leaders say that there’s a severe shortage of ag teachers in Illinois.
There are nearly 320 agriculture programs in high schools across Illinois, helping drive students to careers in ag-related business and science.
While it’s important to spark interest in agriculture early, the number of ag teachers in the state is dwindling.
“The demand is there for these teachers, and unfortunately, the supply isn’t,” said David Root, superintendent of Williamsville-Sherman schools.
Agriculture is a top industry in Illinois, but finding people to teach high school agriculture is a struggle for districts across the state.
“For elementary positions, you’re going to get 900 applicants, even in a school district our size. But for these specialty areas, you don’t have very many,” Root said.
Typically, there are around 25 agriculture education graduates in Illinois every year. Last year there were only 11, and this year there were 12
“In a typical year, we’ll have 50 to 60 teaching vacancies, and some of those vacancies are created from teachers moving from one school to the next,” said Jess Smithers, state coordinator for Facilitating Coordination in Agriculture Education. “But typically, we have a need for 25 to 35 graduates in agriculture education.”
Smithers said that many agriculture majors are turning to other sectors of the industry.
“Agribusiness is strong, and looking for candidates, and so graduates at the collegiate level are lured into agriculture and maybe away from agriculture education,” Smithers said.
An increase in requirements for state certification also plays a role.
“There are times with the state board where you have to apply for some relief, as far as the credentials, just so you can get someone in there and basically to teach it, even if they’re not certified, because the shortage is there,” Root said.
Agriculture teachers also serve as FFA advisors for the more than 17,500 members in Illinois.
Smithers says both the Facilitating Coordination in Agriculture Education and Illinois colleges are developing more efforts to recruit ag education majors.
Root says it’s not only agriculture teachers that are tough for school districts to find, teachers specializing in foreign language, home economics, and industrial tech are also in demand.