Future of Ag

The number of Illinois farmers is dropping, but agriculture remains the state's leading industry.

And officials with Illinois agricultural programs say the state will continue to be an agricultural powerhouse.

In the next 10 years, the world's population is projected to rise by 1 billion. With agriculture a global industry, Illinois farmers will have more demand for their products, officials say.

"We have both the natural resources and the intellectual property to meet some of that demand," said Jim Mackey, of the Illinois Department of Agriculture.

The products haven't changed much over the years. A pound of beef is still a pound of beef. But farming itself has changed drastically and will continue to do so.

Drones fly over fields and monitor growth. Tractors are guided by GPS systems, which helps fertilize crops more efficiently. Seed placement has become as precise as a skilled sniper's shot. New LED lights for growing plants in greenhouses need less energy to run.

"Farming will continue to become more technical and more automated," Mackey said.

More jobs in the field will be created for entrepreneurs and technology savvy workers, according to Lee Strom, project director of a relatively new organization called FARM Illinois.

"Technology changes in agriculture are moving faster and every day," Strom said.

In addition to technology transforming a farmer's life, consumers are also bringing change for farmers.

"For years, the consumers didn't say anything," said Robert Davies, membership and marketing director of the Illinois Farmers Union. "Now all of a sudden, the consumers are getting up and saying, 'We don't want what you're producing. We don't like what you're doing. We want something else.'"

A rising number of consumers have begun to decline genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and demand locally grown foods. They care where the food was made, what the animals were fed, and whether the animals were treated humanely.

With that surging new demand, specialty farms have sprung up.

That's good news for independent farmers and competition in the industry, officials at the Illinois Farmers Union say.

Family farms have seen rough times with competition from big "factory farms."

"So much of what we eat and drink every day is controlled by a handful of corporations," said Norbert Brauer, president of the Illinois Farmers Union.

Ninety percent of independent hog producers have gone away. And four companies claim 80 percent of the beef market.

These corporations only care about profits, Davies said. He continued to say that the big companies have put family farms out of business over the years and have tossed aside traditional farming values.

"If your bottom line is more important than the health of your community, the health of your children, your environment, the humane treatment of animals, then there's no point of calling yourself a farmer because you're not," Davies said.

But with new independent farmers responding to the portion of consumers who want specialty products, the stranglehold that the big guys had on the marketplace is loosening up.

More and more farmers markets are starting up. There, locally grown products are sold to consumers directly from farmers. So while agriculture has become a global marketplace, it has become even more local as well.

"There will be more small specialty farms producing for local markets," said Ray Hankes, Division Manager of Food Safety and Animal Protection at the Illinois Department of Agriculture.

Besides specialty farms, the state has been growing in other areas as well. Strom said that the state has a growing winery sector.

The state has quite the farming resume. It's the U.S. leader in soybean production. Runner-up in corn production. The leader for processed food sales.

State farmers seem to get more productive each year. Illinois farmers hit record yields for soybeans and corn in 2014.

"I've never seen yields like this," farmer Chris Hartke told the Effingham Daily News in a January story.

Agriculture in the state has become a $120 billion industry and makes up about 10 percent of its economic output.

Still, agriculture doesn't seem to get the respect its economic importance might seem to demand.

"It's not heralded in any prominent way," Strom said.

But Strom and the other officials believe it should be. After all, the products created from the agricultural market are items that humans cannot live without.

Stan Polanski can be reached at

stan.polanski@effinghamdailynews.com or 217-347-7151 ext. 131.

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