Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=157486
Story Retrieval Date: 6/18/2013 11:01:45 PM CST
“Agriculture in Illinois is still a family affair,” said Larry Paarlberg, a 56-year-old farmer from southeast Cook County. “But the multinational corporations can only survive if agriculture producers can make a profit.”
The entire agriculture industry – from seed companies to fertilizer producers to farmers to grain elevator operators – is a highly interdependent system that makes collaboration imperative. They avoid fighting through the media, instead resolving issues behind closed doors to present a unified front to state legislators.
“We stick together because we have to,” said Jean Payne, president of the Illinois Fertilizer & Chemical Association. “We have so many urban legislators. They wouldn’t know how to vote on something if we didn’t all collaborate.”
The agriculture lobby in Illinois is currently most concerned with the state’s fiscal situation. Specifically, they are worried about cuts to the Illinois Department of Agriculture budget that threaten the inspection and testing programs farmers require to get products to market, and that consumers rely on for a safe food system.
There are seven key interest groups that lobby together for agricultural reforms in the state: Illinois Farm Bureau, Illinois Corn Growers Association, Illinois Soybean Association, Illinois Fertilizer & Chemical Association, Grain & Feed Association of Illinois, Illinois Seed Trade Association and a joint representative of the Illinois Pork and Beef associations.
The Illinois Farm Bureau, a member of the American Farm Bureau Federation, is a leader in the state. It has 80,000 members and 96 active county bureaus, each with its own elected director, vice president and engaged electorate.
“Our mission is to keep agriculture open and competitive for a landowner to do what he or she wants within the rule of law,” said Kevin Semlow, IFB’s director of state legislation.
“It gives me an opportunity to express opinions on items of an interest to me or of general interest to the agriculture-producing population,” said Paarlberg, IFB member and vice president of the Cook County board.
The Center for Food Safety, based in Washington, D.C., said the organization in Illinois mimics how agriculture is organized federally, and that poses a problem.
“This is David versus Goliath,” said Colin O’Neil, researcher at the center. “[Other] advocacy groups can’t always step up to the fight.”
In Illinois, Debbie Hillman, co-founder of the Evanston Food Policy Council who has been active in recent agriculture legislation, said the tight-knit agriculture lobby does not mean that change isn’t possible.
“In three years we had two bills passed and created a new state body,” Hillman said. “We’ve created a tool with which to create change,” referring to the Illinois Local Food, Farms and Jobs Council.
“What is also important to note is that this policy came out of Evanston, not rural Illinois,” Hillman said. “We want to find a way to keep more food dollars in our state. It’s about economic development.”
Agriculture in Illinois earns nearly $9 billion annually, according to the Illinois Department of Agriculture.