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Fantasy Farming -- A Lesson on the Risks in Agriculture

Rich Egger
The Mercer County High School class poses for a photo in front of their plot.

Fantasy farming gives high school students from western Illinois a chance to learn firsthand about the guesswork and gambles that farmers make every year.

“It’s almost like picking a fantasy football team,” said Troy Coziahr, Manager of the Monsanto Learning Center, a 480 acre research farm just south of Monmouth.

“They’re drafting their team and the hybrid is like the quarterback, right? That’s the first choice you‘re going to make. Nitrogen is kind of like the running back. That’s carrying the load.”

Conziahr said this is the fourth year Monsanto has hosted fantasy farming in Illinois. The agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology company gives $1,000 to the school that produces the highest yield and $1,000 to the school that generates the greatest profit from its plot.

Similar competitions are held at the company’s learning centers in Iowa and Nebraska.

Credit Rich Egger
Monsanto's Troy Coziahr talks to the class about the decisions they made for their corn plot this year.

17 high schools competed this year in Illinois, represented by 16 ag programs and one science class. Each school is given a corn plot. The plots are 100 feet by 20 feet and are all located in the same section of the learning center.

Coziahr visited the schools early in the calendar year to give the students some agronomic background and to receive instructions on how each school wanted Monsanto to manage their plot – what corn hybrid to plant (Monsanto offers ten choices from its own stock), when to plant, whether to apply a fungicide, and so on.

“I’m a former high school ag teacher and I thought this was a neat opportunity to get some agronomy and crop industry education into some high school ag programs,” said Coziahr.

The schools are then required to take a field trip to the learning center in the fall to see their plot.  Coziahr’s teacher skills were on display on a cloudless day as he talked to ag students from Mercer County High School.  The field corn rustled in the wind as Coziahr engaged students in front of their plot. He told them this was the third consecutive year corn was raised on this plot.

“What might be building up out here if we’re continually raising corn?” Coziahr asked.  After a pause, one of the students replied, “Insects.”

“Insects!” exclaimed Coziahr. “Insects that like to eat corn. They find a corn field and eat corn roots, leaves, or kernels or whatever.”

The students were also given a quick tour of the sprawling learning center, which has research plots and an outdoor exhibit on the history of corn.

Credit Rich Egger
A few students (you can see them in the center of the photo) were sent into the center of Mercer County High School’s plot to pick what they considered an average size ear of corn from the field. The ears were used to help estimate the yield, though the school’s exact yield wouldn’t be known until the plots were harvested.

Afterward, senior Nicholas Close said it was cool to experiment with the crop as part of the fantasy farming competition.

“It’s been interesting to learn more about the traits. That could definitely affect the practices I’ll do in my future,” said Close, who hopes to one day manage the family farm.

The Mercer County High School plot – and others -- suffered a setback during a June storm that included heavy rains, high winds, and hail. But Close said the plants generally bounced back.

“I find it incredible everything that the plants can do. The fact that they can grow like they can, or if a plant doesn’t get pollinated the silks keep on growing until they do get pollinated, which is really interesting. It overcomes the problems is has and the plants have adapted to things over the years. I find it really incredible,” Close said.

While fantasy farming is designed to teach students, Troy Coziahr said he too has learned lessons from the first four years of the competition.

“The most expensive plot is never the highest yielding. And on the other side of the coin, the cheapest plot where they’ve tried to cut the most corners is never the most profitable. And in every year except one, the highest yielding plot has not been the most profitable plot,” he said.

"It's really about efficiency and making good choices."

Rich is TSPR's News Director.