Saving Private Farmers
Illinois farmers get real about industry challenges and urgent needs
With only two percent of the population actively farming, but that same population empowering a multi-million dollar impact to the Illinois economy, it can be difficult to connect to Illinois farmers and to understand what they perceive as threats to or opportunities for their family businesses.
In the fall of 2022, members of the IL Corn Growers Association shared their priorities and their challenges, which help us to understand the Illinois ag economy today.
The first two hinge on each other. For Illinois corn farmers, the export market draws more than half of the corn they grow and that same market opportunity relies on a robust river transportation system. The locks and dams on the river are antiquated and dilapidated, having been built in the 1930s with only a 50 year life span, but are still being forced into service today. Funds have been allocated to begin renovation on two of the locks important to Illinois exports, but years of work and many other unauthorized lock renovations stand between Illinois corn farmers and the transportation system they need.
More than half of Illinois corn is sold into the export market because the river system Illinois enjoys makes international export lower cost and lower environmental impact. However, building an international sales relationship to rely on usually requires a free trade agreement. At least in the foreseeable future, the current administration seems reluctant to engage in negotiating the new free trade agreements that would propel Illinois ag and the Illinois economy forward.
About sixty percent of the farmers surveyed see trade as an increasing factor in their family farm profitability.
An investment in best management practices – or the farming methods that will reinvest in the soil and water resources on Illinois family farms – remain a priority for both the public and the family good. Farming is a lifestyle, one farmers inherit from their forefathers and pass to their children with a great amount of pride. Making the soil and water in their care better than they found it leaves a legacy for the future that farmers won’t ignore. They are not only interested in implementing the practices that will protect natural resources, but when those practices and the farm finances come into balance, farm families consider it an imperative.
More than 92 percent of these farmers are willing to voluntarily change farming practices in order to reduce nutrient loss.
To conclude, we asked these farmers about the largest challenges on their family farms; they told us the same categories with the verbiage altered to the negative. Illinois corn farmers are worried about meeting the goals of the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy and being regulated as a result. They worry about the lack of free trade agreements being negotiated. And they worry about declining infrastructure, including locks, roads, and bridges.
These challenges and opportunities – export market development, river transportation investment, and best management practice implementation – may present the best opportunities Illinois has to spur the economy via Illinois agriculture.