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The University of Illinois Agricultural Communications Program issues this e-newsletter to share updates on student and faculty accomplishments, academic activities, and other initiatives. Contact Lulu Rodriguez, Program Director, with questions or comments.

Ag Comm students celebrate Illinois’ “official snack"
 Students taste-test different varieties of popcorn in AGCM 220 (Communicating Agriculture).

The story goes that it took years of heated debate before popcorn was named Illinois’ official snack; it had to compete with the likes of Beer Nuts and Lemonhead candy. What sealed the deal was a class project by the fearless second and third graders of Cunningham Elementary in Joliet, along with teacher Fran Hollister, who urged Springfield that popcorn should be the official snack food of the state. State Senator Larry Walsh sponsored the proposal and the General Assembly made it official in 2003.

In honor of popcorn, students in AGCM 220 (Communicating Agriculture) tasted several varieties of popcorn courtesy of Walker’s Prairie Harvest based in Philo and the Pilot Knob Comforts Popcorn Co. in Oneida and learned more about the specialty popcorn industry. Their task: write news stories about this industry that caters to a vibrant and growing niche market. After all, Americans eat around 16 billion quarts of popcorn a year, according to The Popcorn Board; and artisanal, handmade varieties are garnering an increasing chunk of the market.

Walker’s Prairie Harvest Popcorn is a labor of love for former head of the Ag Communications Program, Dr. Jim Evans. It specializes in gourmet hybrid popcorn from three generations of Evans Schumacher families of Winfield, Iowa, and Philo, Illinois. Its products are homegrown and processed in the tradition of Dr. Evans’ father, Walker H. Evans, producer of hybrid popcorn since 1938.

Pilot Knob Comforts Popcorn is owned and operated by Karlie (Elliott) Bowman, an Ag Comm alumna, and husband Andrew Bowman. Their multi-generational family farm produces predominantly corn and soybeans, but has always grown popcorn as a hobby. It turned this sideline passion into a sustainable growth avenue.

Students learned about the history and importance of this specialty crop, how it is produced and marketed, and the entire value chain around it. They taste-tested white, yellow, red and blue varieties of popcorn that these two companies provided. They also went through the evolution of the product and how it is packaged for specific target audiences.

AGCM 220 is designed to introduce students to good writing, astute presentation skills, and communication strategies. Open to students across the campus, this course fosters greater appreciation for agriculture, especially among those who have had little exposure to the farm and other food sources.

Focus urged on more pictorial products in local languages to communicate nutrition in rural Nepal
 Twenty-five communication/extension officers and representatives from 12 agencies attended the seminar-workshop in “Communication Strategies to Reach Rural Women with Nutrition Messages” held last year in Kathmandu.

Communication and extension officers in Nepal stressed the need for highly pictorial communication materials in the local languages to reach rural women with nutrition information. Meeting in Kathmandu under the auspices of the Integrating Gender and Nutrition into Agricultural Extension and Advisory Serives (INGENAES) project, the officers stressed that such materials bridge the literacy divide and are more likely to grab the attention of rural women who are Increasingly taking on more active roles in agriculture, but are receiving conflicting messages from various sources.

The participants recommended greater coordination among development organizations, and saw the need for more formative research to gather baseline data and thus permit systematic barrier analyses in the conduct of communications work. They also saw the importance of reinforcing key messages through multiple communication channels, and the value of venues that allow women to share experiences and success stories.

These recommendations were elicited in a one-day seminar-workshop on “Communication Strategies to Reach Rural Women with Nutrition Messages” conducted by Lulu Rodriguez, Director of the Agricultural Communications Program. The seminar-workshop was attended by 25 individuals from 12 agencies.

The event’s morning session focused on the principles and concepts of targeted communication, especially considering a hard-to-reach audience such as rural women. The participants, divided into teams, discussed the communication efforts of their agencies that have gained traction, the communication materials rural women prefer, the constraints they faced in reaching women, and the difficulties they encountered in disseminating information about nutrition.

Lulu Rodriguez inspects the page proofs of the Agricultural Information and Communication Center’s bi-monthly newsletter, produced at the center’s printing facilities in Lalitpur, one of the three districts in Kathmandu Valley. 

Rodriguez visited Nepal to jumpstart a research project that aims to keep stock of the strategies, tactics, and messages INGENAES partner organizations have used in efforts to disseminate information about nutrition to rural women. The data gathering phase of the study entailed interviewing key communication and/or extension officers of these partner agencies. She conferred with representatives from local and international NGOs (Heifer International, Helen Keller International, Boudha Bahanupati Project Pariwar, and International Development Enterprises), and USAID-supported Feed the Future projects (Knowledge-based Integrated Sustainable Agriculture and Nutrition or KISAN, Promoting Agriculture, Health, and Alternative Livelihoods (PAHAL), Sustainable Action for Resilience And Food Security (Sabal), and Suuahara or “good nutrition.” She also met with government representatives from the Agricultural Information and Communication Center of the Ministry of Agricultural Development, and the Directorate of Extension.

One such agency the survey team visited is AICC, the professional wing of the MoAD charged with producing agricultural information relevant to farmers, traders, entrepreneurs, and professionals. The Center also distributes ag information through the print, broadcast and online media. Of their products, the most popular has been the Krishi Diary. Published annually, the Diary is a compendium of facts and recommended crop and livestock production practices, which serves as a veritable reference guide that extension agents readily take to the field. Its inside pages consist mainly of tables with statistics interspersed with text. They are published exclusively in Nepalese.

The Krishi Diaries are intended for frontline extension workers and leader farmers. Dr. Raju Ghumire, AICC senior agricultural communication officer, would like the Diary to feature more beefed up content, including nutrition information for women and children.

Alum Stu Ellis bags Excellence in Media Award from Illinois Corn Growers Association
 Broadcaster, extension worker, reporter, publisher, educator. For his varied roles as an ag communicator, alum Stu Ellis (right) won the 2016 Excellence in Media Awardee from the Illinois Corn Growers Association. (Photo courtesy of Farmgate Media.)

The Illinois Corn Growers Association (ICGA) recently named Stu Ellis of S2LS Ag Communications its 2016 Excellence in Media Awardee. The award, given last December in Normal, honors members of the media for their exemplary service in promoting Illinois corn and corn farmers.   

“It makes me happy to recognize a fixture in our ag industry with this media award,” said Jeff Jarboe, ICGA President. “Stu has had many homes since his first career as a farm broadcaster, but he takes advantage of every change and new opportunities to bring more value for Illinois farmers.”

Ellis has worn several hats in more than 40 years as an agricultural communicator.

He was a broadcast journalist for WSOY in Decatur and served as director of marketing for the American Soybean Association in St. Louis, where he helped create a national demand for soybean ink. 

In 1992, Ellis joined the Illinois Farm Bureau, developing educational programs in marketing, financial management, contract production, and risk management for farmers.

In 1988, his work with University of Illinois Extension began as an Extension agent in Macon County, where he served as the Farm Business and Marketing Educator, creating the USDA's national educational curriculum for risk management. He became the Macon County Unit Leader for U of I Extension in 2000. 

His roles in the Extension domain include being president of the Illinois Farm News Association and Decatur Rotary Club, president of the Illinois Extension Agricultural Association, and Extension's advisory member of the Illinois Farm Bureau Board of Directors.

Today, Ellis hosts daily radio programs in Clinton and Taylorville and a daily television program on WAND Decatur. He writes a weekly newspaper column for the Decatur Herald & Review. For more than 18 years, he wrote and published Cornbelt Update, a weekly summary of news from Extension and government, focused on marketing, farm management, and other issues of interest to Midwestern farm owners and operators.

Ellis also manages Farmgate Media, which provides full-service production, including brainstorming, research, copywriting, editing, voicing, broadcasting, and marketing across media platforms. He works with an extensive network of associates, institutions, broadcasters, and publishers he has built over the years.

By drumming up public support through his columns, Ellis played a vital role in making Decatur a permanent biennial site for the Farm Progress Show, the nation’s largest outdoor farm event.  

He has recently dabbled in video production and editing, producing videos for commercial agricultural clients and video features for farmers to highlight on their websites and Facebook pages.

Ellis and his wife Cindy reside in Decatur. 

Digital exhibits showcase ACDC special collections
 One of ACDC’s digital exhibits featured 175 years of Prairie Farmer, heralded as “ the local production information authority for farmers across the state of Illinois."

By Caeli Cleary

How can the home of more than 43,000 agricultural communications documents from 212 countries highlight its special collections? Why not make digital exhibits out of them, thought former graduate student Kelsey Berryhill. To showcase the variety of agricultural materials in its special collections, the Agricultural Communications Documentation Center (ACDC), based at the library of the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, began creating digital exhibits in 2015.

“I was sharing some images on Twitter, but that didn’t really seem enough to show just how great the collection was,” Berrhill said. “All along, I have wanted to emphasize the Volume 1 Number 1 collection of agricultural periodicals and show some of the really cool things we have in it.”


Digital exhibits are visual ways of sharing special collections or simply interesting items stored in an archive to an online audience. A digital exhibit may feature themes such as farm safety, farm women, and historical advertising pieces.

Digital exhibits allow ACDC to share a few of the many interesting items in its archives with a diverse audience. To determine what should be highlighted, ACDC staff look through the Volume 1 Number 1 collection to decide on a theme. They also create exhibits in time for the anniversary celebrations of agricultural communication institutions. For example, Prairie Farmer’s 175th anniversary last year offered a perfect opportunity to showcase America’s oldest agricultural magazine.

ACDC’s digital exhibits draw students to the array of materials it offers. Students writing a paper or international visitors who are conducting research use the digital exhibits as a gateway to ACDC’s online database. 

The information services provided by ACDC are available to students, teachers, researchers, professional communicators and others interested in communications related broadly to agriculture, food, natural resources, and rural affairs.

ACDC intern Caeli Cleary is an Ag Communications senior who specializes in environmental writing and reporting. She hails from Glenview, Illinois.

A taste of the “Hamburger University” at the Chicago Food Institute
Ag Comm junior Xavier Morgan (second from left) and fellow Food Institute participants get geared up for a tour of a meat packing plant, one of the highlights of this year’s gathering of talented students sponsored by the Agriculture Future of America. 

One of the advantages of being in Ag Comm is having the flexibility to pick from a string of allied organizations that help students expand their professional networks, interact with peers who share their passion, explore the industry, and converse with industry leaders. Of these allied organizations, the Agriculture Future of America (AFA) is one of the best.

AFA builds bridges for young leaders to foster engagement and innovation in food and agriculture. Every year, it hosts the Food Institute in Chicago for 75 selected students majoring in various disciplines from universities all over the country. I was among the lucky ones to be invited. This year, the McDonald’s Corporation hosted us at their world class headquarters and research facility, aptly called the Hamburger University. How cool is that?

The agenda for this year’s Food Institute was packed! The conference kicked off with an overview of the food industry from a panel composed of representatives from FoodMinds, Tyson Foods, Little Lady Foods, Chicago Public Schools, and Cargill. This was one of my favorite sessions because we had the opportunity to ask questions of food industry executives who represent employers of all sizes, from startups to large companies such as Cargill and Monsanto. Students asked questions about a variety of topics—from specific company culture, to advice on job seeking, and opinions on current food trends. The answers were honest and straight to the point.

Another great feature of the Food Institute is the career roundtables, which allowed students to visit with professionals from companies they might be interested in joining in the future. Roundtables are designed to start conversations between students and professionals, creating an environment for networking, idea sharing and connections that serve as gateways for job and internship opportunities.

My absolute favorite part of the Institute was the tour of facilities. I went to see the McDonald’s University, Archer Daniels Midland, and the Rose Meat Packing Company. Doing so made me understand better what my professors call the agriculture “value chain.” It also made me appreciate production agriculture more, and the efforts of farmers, farm families, and food companies to keep the nation’s food quality and food supply top-notch. On the third day, we had breakout sessions, which covered a variety of topics including sensory evaluation, supply chain, and a sobering discussion about hunger led by Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks and the nation's leading domestic hunger-relief charity.

Xavier Morgan ( is an Ag Communications junior who came to Urbana-Champaign via Joliet Junior College. He has elected Advertising as his concentration.  

Alumni Spotlight - Ann Kafer, Communications Dynamo at Growmark

By Christy Allen

Ag Comm alumna Ann Kafer, it seems, was born to communicate. “I just knew I had a passion for communications, and couldn’t think of any place I wanted to go to nurture my passion more than Illinois,” she explains.

Starting this May, Ann will assume the position of Vice President for Human Resources and Strategy for GROWMARK. Ann serves on the senior management team of this affiliated network of supply and grain cooperatives. In her new role, she assumes overall responsibility for the direction of the corporate strategic planning process, and will provide management direction to human resource functions and corporate services operations.

Ann’s interest in agriculture and communications began with her FFA chapter where, she recalls, she was the lone female at the time. She joined a number of contests that tested her skills, including an extemporaneous public speaking competition at a state FFA convention held at the Assembly Hall on campus. She also put her leadership skills to work for a number of FFA initiatives. 

Ann graduated with honors from the University of Illinois in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in Agricultural Communications. She credits the Ag Comm curriculum for preparing her well for a career in communications and agribusiness. She keeps in touch with her college cohort and other alumni, both older and younger, who make up “quite a network and quite a reputation that the University of Illinois has in agricultural communications.” This network, she observes, has grown over the years in the service of the agriculture industry.

Ann’s first job was as communications director for Coles-Moultrie Electric Cooperative in Mattoon, Illinois, a position she held for about three years before taking on a role as communications coordinator with the Illinois Soybean Association.

She is a 2007 high honors graduate of Lincoln Christian Seminary with a master’s of arts degree in the Bible. In addition, she has logged hours toward a Masters of Business Administration degree at Illinois State University.

In 1993, she joined the Bloomington, Illinois-based regional ag supply and grain marketing cooperative GROWMARK System as publications manager, and has since served the company by leading corporate communications and marketing services, career development, compliance, and human resources administration. Since 2015, Ann has held the position of director of organization change for the spark! project. She is a graduate of the GROWMARK’s LEAD program and the Graduate Institute of Cooperative Leadership.

She is active in her church and as a speaker and author. She is a former director of the Cooperative Communicators Association (CCA) and earned CCA’s Graznak Award in 1999 as the outstanding communicator under age 36. 

Kafer’s new role encompasses traditional human resources, corporate communications, government relations, and administrative services. It also entails working with the board of directors on corporate strategic planning.

“I knew I wanted to be in ag,” Ann said. “I’m blessed with the opportunity to work for an organization that has given me a lot of opportunities. It’s an organization I believe in strongly. I believe in what we do and why we do it.”

Ann is proud of those she has worked with all these years. “Now, it’s time to help build and shape careers for the future, especially by producing a new generation of ag communicators. There is so much reward in passing it on and paying it forward."

Ag Comm alumni - send us an update!

Ag Comm alumni are all over—in Illinois and beyond. Won’t you let us know what you’ve been up to lately? Your fellow alumni and friends would like to know. Our eager current students would like to know. And the Ag Comm Program certainly would like to keep in touch.

Make, keep, and strengthen connections by giving us updates. Feel free to forward them to the ACES Office of Advancement.  We’d love to hear from you!


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