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College grad explores the economics and people of agriculture on the 'Back Roads of Illinois'

 Cesar Delgado
Cesar Delgado sits in front of a red tractor near a corn field. Little pumpkins and flowers sit at the foot of his wheelchair.
Cesar Delgado

Some might not immediately think of agriculture as a field accessible to people with physical disabilities. An Illinois college student is changing that perception.

“I'm Cesar Delgado from Ottawa, Illinois," he says. "I am a college student at Illinois Valley Community College."

Cesar’s set to graduate from IVCC in a few weeks – commencement is May 13 -- with a degree in agricultural studies.

He has cerebral palsy. Cesar’s non-verbal and uses a wheelchair. But he can speak thanks to a digital communication device that allows him to control a keyboard with his eyes. His voice is computer-generated.

Finding that voice has let Cesar fully pursue his passion for agriculture and, specifically, his goal to become a professional agricultural communicator.

He’s already started doing that while he’s in school with his podcast, “Back Roads of Illinois.” On the show, he interviews farmers and other agriculture professionals from across the country. They chat about their lives, economics and the markets.

“I’m Cesar Delgado from Back Roads of Illinois!” he says starting the show. “What is your opinion on the farm bill for Illinois farmers?”

His show touches on legislation, prices, politics, inflation -- every area of the industry.

Cesar’s a member of the National Association of Farm Broadcasters. He recently won an award for prepared speaking. And he wants to continue his show after he gets his diploma.

“I’ll be dedicated to serving the farmers with my podcast,” says the LaSalle County native.

Cesar’s family’s farming roots run deep. His great-great grandfather was a farm bureau president in Mexico. His mom says she would tell Cesar stories about him as a little kid.

When he was really young, she remembers looking for a battery-operated toy car for him.

Cesar couldn’t drive it, so she needed to find one with two seats. There was only one option, and Cesar says it only fueled his interest more.

“When I was a little boy I had a John Deere tractor,” remembers Delgado. “So, I knew it.”

His sister would drive him around in that toy tractor. As he got older, he joined his high school’s Future Farmers of America group and served as a farm manager for the organization. He got to go to livestock, grain and dairy judgings.

It was in high school he met Tina Hardy, the coordinator of the Center for Accessibility and Neurodiversity at Illinois Valley Community College. She worked with Cesar’s high school to help him smoothly transition into college.

“It's amazing, she said. “The thing that strikes me is the passion for agriculture was there the moment I met him. That has not changed at all, not a bit. And for someone his age, I think that's pretty unique to have a passion you develop early and sticks that long.”

And Illinois Valley was a good fit. The college has a growing agriculture program. They have a campus farm, a new ag center and are building ag classrooms and labs.

To this day, Hardy works with Cesar, setting up any accommodations he needs with instructors. But she told him up-front that there weren’t going to be any shortcuts, no free passes.

“'We're gonna push you, and we're gonna make you the best communicator you can. Same requirements, same standards,'" Hardy remembered saying to him. "And he worked hard -- he never flinched,”

She says she doesn’t know if the faculty and administrators at IVCC really grasp the connections Cesar’s made through his show with ag leaders locally and nationally.

And outside of class and the podcast, he explores even more areas of the ag industry. For example, he works for a company selling micronutrients.

“The company is out of Oklahoma," he said, "so we sell the micro to the farmers and ranchers in the country, even the homeowners."

Cesar’s also got a backyard farm at his house in Ottawa where he grows crops like corn, cucumbers and tomatoes for his family.

“I like to have the challenge of a row crop like soybeans and corn,” said Delgado.

No matter what preconceptions people have about his disability, he says he has not and will not let it stop him from pursuing his love of ag.

“Honestly, I just don't give up,” he said. “‘Just do it’ -- like the logo of Nike.”

“The Back Roads of Illinois” have led Cesar all the way to the graduation stage.

Copyright 2023 WNIJ Northern Public Radio. To see more, visit WNIJ Northern Public Radio.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.