BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — The successes by farmers and the accomplishments by the state’s Department of Agriculture were highlighted to open the Illinois Agricultural Legislative Roundtable on Jan. 24.
“We’ve just had an incredible year for agriculture, not only in this state, but also in the nation. If you’re reading numerous materials, a number of people involved in the ag world would say that in general agriculture has had the best year since about 1972,” Jerry Costello, IDOA director, said to representatives of ag groups from across the state.
He noted the state had a record average corn yield of 214 bushels per acre, soybeans narrowly missed a record at 63 bushels per acre, and wheat had a record average of 79 bushels per acre. Winter wheat seedings of 940,000 acres was the highest since 2008.
“I’m looking forward to capitalizing on a number of things that we can work on together.”— Jerry Costello, director, Illinois Department of Agriculture
Costello also touted the state’s improved financial condition and its impact on his department.
“Our state right now is probably in the best fiscal shape it’s been in in about four decades. That’s not coming from a Republican, a Democrat or an independent. It’s coming from Moody’s and S&P bond ratings. We’ve had six credit upgrades in this state,” Costello said at the Illinois Farm Bureau-hosted event.
In 2019, the Department of Agriculture’s overall budget was about $107 million. The overall budget number in 2023 is $147 million, and general revenue funds have increased from $17 million to $29 million.
The IDOA had about 300 employees in 2019 and currently has about 360.
“That’s all very positive and what I would consider moving in the right direction,” Costello added.
Costello said the accomplishment by the state he’s most proud of is FFA membership last year increased from 23,000 to 37,000, spearheaded by the effort of Sen. Doris Turner, D-Springfield.
Through a $550,000 appropriation by the General Assembly, FFA dues were waived for every student taking agriculture education classes.
“If we want to talk about what moves agriculture forward in this state and in this country, it’s getting youth involved. If we want to keep pace and make sure that agriculture is changing and moving in the right direction, engaging youth is by far the most important thing in my view,” Costello said.
Attendance records were set in 2022 at the Illinois State Fair and DuQuoin State Fair, and the upgrades to fairground facilities are ongoing.
Illinois State Fair attendance of 636,700 was 127,000 above the previous record set in 2019. Weekend attendance was 95,000 above 2021. The number of junior livestock exhibitors in Springfield increased by nearly 20%.
The DuQuoin State Fair celebrated its 100th anniversary and attendance topped 170,000. The previous record was just over 150,000.
In recognition of the 100th anniversary, an additional $100,000 in standardbred horse racing purses was added in 2022 at DuQuoin.
Capital projects on the DuQuoin State Fairgrounds include improvements to the grandstand, main gate and roads.
Projects at the Illinois State Fairgrounds include improvements to the Multi-Purpose Arena, Eighth Street, Reisch Pavilion and building and barn roofs.
The Farm Family Resource Initiative expanded to a statewide program in 2022, connecting farmers with mental health resources and providers.
“We work with SIU School of Medicine and the University of Illinois on this. It went from a six-county pilot program to statewide. It went from initially a call-in number to now there’s a call-in, a text option and email option, as well as that anybody who calls in that are having extreme issues or problems they can access six free telemedicine visits,” Costello said.
“They don’t have to drive their truck to a mental health professional’s office possibly in a small town where people see that they’re there. This is all done confidentially. It can be done on your cellphone from the cab of your tractor.”
He credited the late Sen. Scott Bennett, D-Champaign, for spearheading the program.
When Costello was state representative and House ag committee chair, Bennett contacted him a few days before a budget vote.
“Scott told me he wanted to put $100,000 into the Farm Family Resource Initiative. I told him I’m sure we’d be able to work it out if he did. He called me the next day and had $300,000 for the initiative. That program would not be around if it wasn’t for his initiative,” Costello said.
IDOA’s Fall Covers for Spring Savings program has also been a success and continues to grow. 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 verified in the program.
The cover crop program started four years ago with 50,000 acres and maxed out within 12 days from the beginning of enrollment.
It was increased to 100,000 acres the second year and took just 12 hours to fill those acres. In the third year of the program, the 100,000 acres allotted were maxed in about eight hours.
“This year in conjunction with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and its director, John Kim, we had 140,000 acres. We were able to access monies from the Gulf Hypoxia Task Force which enabled us to put 40,000 additional acres into that program. The 140,000 acres in the program was filled in about five hours. The growth of the program has been amazing,” Costello noted.
“There is some money that has been rolled over because of premiums that haven’t been able to be used in the last three years. We took that $38,000 out of our administration monies so we could access $86,000 of federal funds, and we announced last week an additional 20,000 acres for the cover crop program. So, now we have 160,000 acres in the program in Illinois.
“To put it in perspective, we had 182,688 acres that were applied for with about 828 contracts. It’s good that we’re oversubscribed. I would love to hit that 200,000-acre goal at some point. I do think that’s doable. We just need to work on it together.”
Costello stressed the importance of working across both sides of the aisle on behalf of agriculture.
“If we don’t work together and if we don’t focus on the core mission of agriculture in this state, we get caught up and lost in all the minutia and there’s going to be a lot of wheels that just spin,” he said.
“I will work with anyone and everyone to move things forward, but I will also transparent and honest with you. So, just because I don’t tell you what you want to hear, don’t get upset, because I promise I will tell you the truth and what I think you need to hear.
“I’m looking forward to capitalizing on a number of things that we can work on together. Feel free to reach out and talk to anybody on our team.”
“When I was a state representative, state Sen. David Luechtefeld told me, ‘Jerry, think about this, on a clear day 67% of the people in this state can see the Sears Tower,’” Costello said of the Republican from Okawville.
“Sixty-six percent of the state’s population is in Cook County and the collar counties, which means 66% of the Legislature is in Cook and the collar counties. So, please help us and help me help you and I look forward to working together.”