February 26, 2024

Legislation supports local foods, conservation

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Local foods and regenerative agriculture efforts scored some major wins by the close of the Illinois General Assembly session.

“These wins are the direct result of farmers and eaters working together to create change,” said Molly Pickering, Illinois Stewardship Alliance deputy director.

“By working together, they are building real power and ultimately laying the ground for a future where Illinois farmers feed Illinois and communities across the state have access to fresh, local food.

“Conservation funding ensures that Illinois farmers, who have an outsized impact on Illinois land and water, have the tools they need to be good stewards of those natural resources.”

School Lunches

The Better School Lunches Act provides that schools across Illinois now have more opportunity to improve the nutrition and quality of their lunches, as well as increase farm-to-school and local purchasing efforts.

This bill removes the requirement that certain school districts must accept food-service agency contracts based on the lowest price bid and puts tax dollars to work to request that schools make a good-faith effort to increase purchasing of food and services from local, healthy, humane and sustainable businesses in Illinois, as well as look to increase purchasing from minority and women-owned businesses.

The Better School Lunches Act was sponsored by Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, D-Peoria, and Sen. Ram Villivalam, D-Chicago, and will go into effect immediately, pending Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s signature.

Permits

The Farmers Market Permit Act, sponsored by Sen. David Koehler, D-Peoria, and Rep. Thomas Bennett, R-Gibson City, will standardize regulations and create an economical fee structure to govern the sale of meat, eggs and dairy at farmers markets.

Prior to the passage of this act, a patchwork of local permits and unclear requirements and fees created a system that was complicated and expensive for farmers to navigate.

The existing regulations prevented farmers from reaching new customers, prevented sales across county lines and prevented Illinois shoppers from access to more fresh and local food.

“With the passage of this act, Illinois livestock farmers can expect simple and scale-appropriate regulations to support their businesses and Illinois shoppers can look forward to a growth in availability of meat, eggs and dairy at nearby farmers markets,” Pickering said.

The bill is awaiting the governor’s signature and would go into effect in January.

Resolution

The Soil Health Day and Week Resolution, sponsored by Rep. Charlie Meier, R-Okawville, and Sen. Scott Bennett, D-Champaign, dedicated the second full week of March as Soil Health Week and the Wednesday of that week as Soil Health Day.

As a result of this resolution, Illinois held its first ever statewide Soil Health Week celebration this year.

This resolution brings greater awareness to the importance of soil to human health, climate resilience, clean water and economic development in the state and sets the groundwork for future policy to build climate resilience and support farmers to protect and build soil health.

Conservation

The Partners for Conservation Program was extended for another year. The program provides funding for the sustainable agriculture grant program, the conservation practices cost-share program, the stream bank stabilization and restoration program, and the soil and water conservation district grants.

In addition, the Soil Water Conservation Districts budget was protected and increased from $11.5 million to $12 million.

SWCDs provide a network of support and technical assistance to help farmers implement conservation projects on their land.

The budget also included level funding of $600,000 for the Fall Covers for Spring Savings Program, which allows the program to continue rewarding farmers for planting cover crops, a conservation practice that helps prevent soil loss and fertilizer runoff and keep Illinois waterways clean.

Eligible applicants receive a $5 per acre insurance premium discount on the following year’s crop insurance invoice for every acre of cover crop enrolled and accepted in the program.

Nutrient Loss

The Partners for Nutrient Loss Reduction Act, creating the Illinois Healthy Soils and Watershed Initiative, stalled in the Illinois Senate.

The legislation would provide for the adoption of guidelines and needs assessments to assist soil and water conservation districts in determining local goals and needs for project implementation to accomplish the goals of the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy. It would provide for the update of water quality program guidance and require the production of an Illinois NLRS report every two years.

Stewardship Alliance-supported bills that did not pass, but “sparked conservations across the state” were the Ag Equity Commission Act, Black Farmer Restoration Act and Local Food and Farms Act, according to Pickering. The bills were introduced by House Ag Committee Chair Sonya Harper, D-Chicago.

The Ag Equity Commission Act recognizes the decline in numbers of Black farmers in Illinois and the difficulties faced by minority communities in the ag industry and establishes the Ag Equity Commission to address these issues.

The commission would work with the Illinois Department of Agriculture to study and provide recommendations on programs, policies and other means to increase equity in agriculture, not only for minority farmers, but also for small farms, specialty crop farms and other diverse types of production.

The Black Farmer Restoration Act tackled disparities in land access for Black farmers, while the Local Food and Farms Act addressed issues of market access for minority and disadvantaged farmers.

Tom Doran

Tom C. Doran

Field Editor