October 16, 2021

Highs, lows: Ag director reflects on whirlwind year

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — 2019 began at the Illinois Department of Agriculture with a rush to have industrial hemp rules and applications in place for the growing season, then came the floods, delayed or prevent planting and dicamba issues. The year concluded with preparations for legalized marijuana.

Director John Sullivan, who resigned on Jan. 13, reviewed the whirlwind year that was his first at the helm to open the Illinois Agricultural Legislative Roundtable Jan. 8 hosted by Illinois Farm Bureau.

Here are some highlights of the director’s report:

On Dicamba

The number of off-target complaints or dicamba and other products filed with IDOA rose from 350 in 2017 to 550 in 2018 and 950 last year.

“Our goal was to try to bring the number of complaints down. After a lot of discussion and input, I made the decision to make the cutoff date to apply dicamba June 30. I thought that was going to help our situation and hopefully bring down the number of complaints,” Sullivan said.

“What happened this year was the weather. In about the first week of June, the U.S. Department of Agriculture came out with their planted acres report and said that 49% of Illinois’ soybeans had been planted. The weather finally straightened out and a lot of soybeans finally got put in the ground.

“My concern was as those soybeans grew and it’s time to spray, we were going to be looking at late June, early July. I was hearing from a lot of folks, a lot of producers about a request to extend the application date past June 30.

“I made the decision to extend the application date as director, and I take full responsibility for it. I extended the application date to July 15. I will tell you as I stand here today, it was the wrong decision that I made as it turned out.

“The last week of June had the highest temperatures we saw for the year. It was, I think, 98 degrees June 28, June 29, the humidity was very high, and had a lot of product been sprayed that last week of June, we still would have without a doubt in my mind had an increase in the number of complaints. July was also hot and humid, and the number of complaints went up.”

After meeting with producers, agribusiness owners, commercial applicators and other stakeholders, Sullivan set new dicamba label restrictions for 2020.

“I made the decision to set June 20 as the cutoff date to apply dicamba,” he said. “It will not be extended.”

In addition, it cannot be applied if the air temperature at the field at the time of application is over 85 degrees, or if the National Weather Service’s forecasted high temperature for the nearest available location for the day of application exceeds 85 degrees.

On Industrial Hemp

Online applications were made available May 1, and in the first 24 hours, IDOA received over 200 applications for about 5,000 acres permitted to grow hemp.

At the end of the year, IDOA had received about 900 permits for growers and processors, including over 150 processor licenses and about 22,000 acres were permitted.

“I knew we could grow it, but the concern I had is what are we going to do with it once it’s grown. Who’s going to process it? When we started this venture there were no processors in the state, but we are making some gains on that,” Sullivan said.

“The hemp industry is still in its infancy stages and has a long way to go. I think we’ve really just scratched the surface as far as the potential uses and production. We’re getting geared up for another season of applications and permits and the challenges that will bring.”

On Cover Crop Program

About 1.5 million acres in Illinois did not get planted in 2019, and Gov. J.B. Pritzker called Sullivan in June to find ways to IDOA can help farmers with the challenges at hand.

“I threw that question out to the department staff and one came back to me and said there were all of those acres that didn’t get planted this year and what if the department offers an incentive program to put cover crops on those prevent plant acres,” Sullivan said.

Cover crops keep the weeds down, control erosion and probably most importantly help reduce nutrient loss.

“We identified $500,000 in our budget, and we offered a program that would provide a farmer with a $5 per acre incentive to plant cover crops on those acres. In less than two weeks, that money was allocated. It was quite amazing,” Sullivan said.

“We’re thrilled with the amount of interest we had in the cover crop program. I think we could have easily doubled the acres if we had the resources to do it.”

IDOA allocated $300,000 for a 2020 cover crop initiative for after harvest acres, and within 10 days after the program opened, all of the money had been committed to applicants.

“The two most effective things that we can do to reduce nutrient loss are no-till and cover crops. I think we have a tremendous opportunity with cover crops to help to reduce nutrient loss here in Illinois and across the country,” Sullivan said.

On Rural Broadband

“The General Assembly passed a capital bill that included $420 million for broadband service across the state. That’s a phenomenal number. I thought if we could get $50 million, that would be huge. Missouri has been working on doing something similar to what we have done here for the last five or six years, and last year, they had $5 million to work with,” Sullivan said.

“The Broadband Advisory Council was created by legislation two years ago, but had never been brought together and organized. We organized it. They will be working to administer the program and to allocate the dollars over the next five to six years.

“I’ve been told by people that I respect in that industry that the money that the state has combined with the federal dollars and also combined with the providers themselves, we can have the opportunity in the next five to six years for anyone in the state that wants high-speed internet service it can happen. I’ve been told that that is very possible.”

On Legalized Marijuana

“Regardless about how you feel about it, I look at it this way: The Department of Ag mostly is a regulatory agency and we were authorized by statute to oversee, administer, permit, create the applications, write the rules and regulations for adult use marijuana with regard to craft grow, processing or infuser and transportation,” Sullivan said.

“We have a small bureau, Medicinal Plants Bureau, which was the original bureau when medicinal marijuana was passed five or six years ago. Now in addition to medicinal, that bureau has taken on industrial hemp and has now taken on adult use. We are in the process of recreating that bureau, and our desire is to make it into a division because we’re going to need a lot more staff to help oversee the program.”

There were 77,000 transactions the first day adult-use marijuana became legal with revenue the first week of about $11 million.

Under the medicinal program, IDOA also is responsible for the 21 cultivator centers currently in the state regulating them and making sure they follow all of the rules of safety and law enforcement.

IDOA opened the application process Jan. 7 for cannabis infuser, transporter and craft grower licenses.

On General Assembly

“The dynamic of the Illinois General Assembly is changing. The chairwoman of the Illinois House Agriculture and Conservation Committee is Rep. Sonya Harper from the South Side of Chicago. I don’t know if she has any farms in her district, but I doubt it. She’s a wonderful lady. We have a really good working relationship with her,” Sullivan said.

“I’ve visited her district. She’s been out to the Department of Ag. We want to make sure that we can educate those individuals who are further and further removed from the farms so that they understand the challenges that we face.

“We can either put blinders on and pretend it’s not happening or we can engage. I believe in engaging and trying to educate and help them get to where they have a better understanding of agriculture in the state.”