Illinois Public Media partners with Uni High to create radio series on farming

February 18, 2016

Plowing Ahead—the latest public radio series to come out of the long-standing partnership between Illinois Public Media and the University of Illinois Laboratory High School (Uni High)—paints a portrait of farming here in east central Illinois in the 21st century. 

Farming is a major economic driver in Illinois, with a seemingly unending sea of corn and soybeans only a few minutes outside Urbana in any one direction. Yet nearly all of the crops grown on these commodity farms are shipped away to be used on an industrial scale. At the same time, there are numerous small farms which stand in contrast to these massive operations by growing different types of crops and mostly selling locally.

“The history of farming in Illinois dates back to the early 1800’s and as a business, it has evolved many times over; however, many people still assume farming is all corn and soybeans and big business,” said Kimberlie Kranich, Director of Community Content and Engagement at Illinois Public Media. “What about the small, specialty farmers? Plowing Ahead gets to the heart of those local stories and the evolution of small farmers’ history.”

How do small, specialty farmers sell their goods and keep their businesses profitable? How has technology and the organic movement changed the way farmers do business? How is it that Big Ag and specialty crop farming can co-exist peacefully in this region of the country?

The Plowing Ahead project set out to answer these questions and more. Students studied historical trends and current farming practices while putting farming in the context of first-person accounts through interviews with the farmers themselves, farming and local food advocates, and other experts. The series works to shed light on the lives of these farmers in east central Illinois via their own stories of perseverance, hard work, and ingenuity.

Uni High students worked with Illinois Public Media broadcast professionals, in particular WILL’s Cheryl Silver, to turn their research and interviews into Plowing Ahead, a series of 5 short radio segments. You can hear a new segment each day starting Monday, February 22, airing on WILL-AM580 at 12:30 p.m. during Here & Now, and you can listen to the series in its entirety right now online.

For Uni High social studies teacher Janet Morford, teaching students how to prepare, conduct and record interviews is central to the 8th grade curriculum and its extensive oral history project. After 8th grade, students who are interested in continuing the project apply to work as an intern with Illinois Public Media as a part of their extra-curricular activities. The Plowing Ahead project interns Even Dankowicz, Monica Pardeshi, Lulianna Taritsa and Katie Tender—all from the Uni High Class of 2016—worked together and closely with Morford and other Uni High faculty to prepare, do research, conduct interviews and write blog entries. In collaboration with Illinois Public Media professionals, the students also created and maintained a project website.

For more than 20 years, students at Uni High have worked with Illinois Public Media professionals to create radio documentaries and short series on topics ranging from equality in athletics, gender and marriage, integration and disability barriers, the Holocaust, and many others. One of these students, Jeremy Hobson, currently co-hosts National Public Radio’s Here & Now.