Heartland Community College officials broke ground on Tuesday on a $23.4 million agricultural complex on the west side of campus in North Normal.

Addressing a gathering that included agricultural business leaders, government officials and educators, Heartland President Keith Cornille called it a landmark day in the school’s history as she develops an agricultural workforce to meet growing demand.

“Many of you here today have spoken to us about this need, this long overdue need for a facility of this nature, the need to support the present and the future of a major lifeline here in the central Illinois – agriculture,” Cornille said, citing McLean County as one of the nation’s top corn and soybean producers.

The 29,500 square foot facility will include an agricultural laboratory with rolling doors so it can stage agricultural equipment, animals and drones for instruction. It will also include a plant and soil lab, a precision agriculture lab and additional classrooms, said Heartland agriculture program coordinator Miranda Buss.

Cornille said the building can also accommodate youth programs, conferences and other community events.

Buss said Heartland’s relatively new agricultural 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, as well as stackable certificates in agribusiness, agronomy, precision agriculture, and regenerative agriculture that students can earn on their way to a degree.

Buss said Heartland currently has nearly 50 full-time agriculture students and hopes to have 200 once the new complex opens in 2024 to help meet demand for agricultural jobs in McLean County and statewide. .

“A lot of these entities have realized that maybe a four-year degree isn’t necessary,” Buss said.

Becky Ropp, administrator of Heartland, a dairy farmer whose family owns and operates Ropp Jersey Cheese, said the college’s expanded agricultural program is expected to have a big impact on one of the region’s major industries.

“There’s hardly any industry or employment that I can’t associate with agriculture,” Ropp said at Tuesday’s groundbreaking ceremony. “I used to say (it’s) health care, but we have benefits in my office who also work in health care.”

Heartland borrows $20 million to cover most of the cost. Chris Downing, executive director of the Heartland Community College Foundation, said the school was almost halfway to its goal of raising $7 million in private donations. The school has secured funding and pledges from approximately 35 private donors, including a $2 million gift from the McLean County Farm Bureau to sponsor the agricultural lab.

If Heartland meets its fundraising goal, the money from the bonds issued by the school for construction could be used to fund other programs, according to Heartland spokesman Steve Fast.

Rodney Billerbeck

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 of the farming town of Cullom in Livingston County is a Heartland administrator and an agribusiness student. Billberbeck said the fact that Heartland’s farm program is in its early stages makes it more appealing to him, and he’s proud to have helped vote to build the farm facility this spring.

“I had options to go to colleges that had more developed agricultural programs, but if there’s a way that I can help continue and help new agricultural programs get started, and that’s something that it will be remembered, this is the legacy I want to leave,” Billerbeck said.

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