There’s no disputing that Joseph Lieb, a 26-year UI employee, has the most spacious office on campus.
His workspace is the 1,000-acre South Farms area, where he has served as an assistant agriculture research technician (they call themselves farmhands) for the animal sciences department for the past five years.
“I love all aspects of this job,” he said from the cab of a tractor last week – which was bouncing along the freshly plowed rows of a 50-acre corn plot south of Curtis Road.
“It’s great being outdoors all the time and I especially love planting corn,” he said. “I take this job pretty seriously; I take care of the university’s land like it’s my own.”
Lieb has spent a great deal of his life caring for the land, a practice that started as a teenager in nearby Tolono. His parents both worked for the Postal Service, but Lieb, beckoned by the Illinois soil, would choose another direction.
“I grew up a city boy, but somewhere along the way I got this dirt in my blood,” he said. “I did have some family that did farming, and my dad had a couple of part-time jobs back then to make ends meet; one of them was helping a guy on his farm.”
Lieb tagged along, absorbed as much as he could, and by high school had picked up his own farmhand job.
“I don’t know how to explain it – I just loved it,” he said. “From there on, I got deeper into it and realized it was something I wanted to do. I did a lot of my learning while I was still in high school – when the other kids were out screwing around and having fun. I liked having money in my pocket.”
Despite his love for the profession, Lieb said he realized early on there were limitations to his being a farmhand-for-rent for the rest of his life.
“I would have loved to have farmed for myself, but I needed it all – the land, the equipment,” he said. “I should have gone to college, but at the time I was pretty much done with school.”
Lieb gravitated toward the UI in 1985 after being hired by the College of Veterinary Medicine as a part-time animal caretaker, with aspirations of eventually making his way to the research farms of the animal sciences department.
“It was part-time work, but it was a way to get my foot in the door,” he said.
In just a year, the caretaker position turned full time, and by 1990 he moved to a similar position on the beef research farm – all the while eyeing the prized farmhand spot.
Lieb bided his time and when the position opened because of a string of retirements, “I told them I absolutely wanted it – I told them it was what I always wanted to do.”
Now in his fifth planting season, Lieb is glad he waited.
“There are a lot of hardworking people in this department and I’m proud to be a part of it,” he said. “I can’t just go to the coffee shop when I like and I know I’m just a tiny piece, but they’ve given me the opportunity of a lifetime.”
One of the perks of his job is getting to drive some of the latest farming equipment, provided through a lease agreement.
“If I had my own farm, I don’t know if I’d ever have that kind of quality equipment,” he said.
But all the equipment in the world doesn’t make someone a farmer. For Lieb, the job is a full-sensory experience every time he sets foot in a field.
“I’m old fashioned; I don’t use GPS to line up the rows,” he said. “It may not be perfect according to a computer, but I have a pretty good eye and a lot of pride. Working here gives you a sense of accomplishment and you know that when you’re done, you did it the way it’s supposed to be done. I like things to look nice and all of us here always try to set a higher standard.”
In all, there are three UI farmhands, and this year has been a challenging one so far.
The mild spring temperatures have changed some of the farm’s regular scheduling processes and a mix-up with this year’s seed order has exacerbated the already hectic planting season.
On April 23, Lieb was cutting hay (usually done after planting), and by April 25 he had switched over to planting corn, determined to finish up the 50-acre field before rain came.
The crops grown at the UI farms are used to feed the many varieties of animals – chickens, pigs and cows – being studied by animal sciences researchers. Crop yields, too, are watched closely, and experiments are conducted on several plant varieties.
Corn, alfalfa and soybeans are all grown on the South Farms, and Lieb keeps it all straight by following a field directory prepared by his managers. Before he pulls his tractor into a field, he pulls out the directory and looks it over to ensure the correct crop is going into the correct field. He said managers also rotate crops, when feasible, though much of the decision-making comes down to which livestock feed is most needed.
In the spring and fall especially, Lieb and his co-workers regularly log 12-hour days as they race to complete planning. In the winter, they’re charged with repairing equipment.
Between the long shifts, he spends time with his 20-year wife, Anita, a manager of a doctor’s office. They have two children: a son who is a freshman at Eastern Illinois University and a daughter who is a freshman at Monticello High School. Their favorite pastime has been watching their children play sports.
He also enjoys hunting and fishing. “I also follow my wife around a lot in the shopping center,” Lieb said.
Lieb has taken some Parkland College classes but still regrets not going farther with his schooling.
“I’ve taught my kids how important getting their education is,” he said. “Times have really changed. I feel lucky every day I go to work.