State Ag director visits TCF

    The Illinois Department of Agriculture Director Jerry Costello II was the guest speaker during the Chicago Farmers December 7, 2020, webinar and outlined the agency’s responsibilities and how it protects the consumer.

    Costello noted that the Department of Agriculture is mainly a regulatory agency. It is responsible for inspecting the state’s 1,727 food manufacturers, which make Illinois the leading food manufacturer in the United States. The agency also inspects all agriculture products such as seed programs and it oversees weights and measures, which encompass scales in grocery stores.

    The environment also comes under the agency’s umbrella and inspections ensure that water quality is protected by monitoring the use of pesticides so that they are not polluting bodies of water. County fairs, fairgrounds, medicinal plants, cannabis and hemp also are regulated by the state agency. “Hemp is a sector that could be one of the top cash crops in Illinois,” Costello commented.

    In response to a question, Costello said that ethanol production in the state is very important and it will expand. He said it has an important role environmentally as a renewable fuel.

    Appointed to the position of director of the department on March 2, Costello has spent his tenure working under the restrictions put in place in an effort to stem the spread of the virus. “We are working with 40-50 percent staff levels in person in our building with most of our people working remotely,” said Costello, who pointed out that a number of staff members usually work remotely because that is the nature of their work.

    Costello said that at the outset of the pandemic Governor J.B. Pritzker deemed agriculture as essential in Illinois. There were concerns at many processing plants due to Covid and for a short time production levels fell to 50 percent; however, plants in the state are at 95 percent production capacity now, he said. The agency worked with its Ag partners such as the beef and dairy associations and corn growers to ensure that there were no shortages, Costello added.

    The CARES (Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security) Act allocated $5 million in business recovery grants for livestock producers and small meat and poultry plants that the state ag department administered. Costello said the department received 749 applications and it is in the process of reviewing the applications and the funds should be disbursed soon.

    Costello went on to say that his department serves as an educational resource and will be the host of a December 9th webinar for new and beginning farmers. The department also “relaunched” the Homegrown by Heroes Program in November, which recognizes veterans who are farmers. The program provides veterans with information that will help them move forward in farming.

    Bobby Dowson, the department’s marketing representative, discussed his work with food and agribusinesses in Illinois. Dowson related that Illinois is one of the leading agricultural states and ranks third in the United States with annual exports of about $8 billion in agricultural products in 2019. The top three products based on 2019 figures include:

    • Corn, $947 million
    • Soy, $798 million
    • Distilled grains $664 million

    He noted that the top trading partners were Canada ($1.4 billion) and Mexico ($1.35 billion). Others include Indonesia, Korea, Japan, China, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and the Philippines. These countries import quite a bit of distillers grain, beef, pork, and soybeans.

    Dowson said the agency markets the agricultural products and organizes tours in the United States for foreign importers interested in pork, dairy and grain tours. It also organizes tours overseas for Illinois agricultural importers. Due to Covid-19, there were a number of virtual tours during 2020. He noted that there were 150 participants this year who were part of the grain tour. The agency seeks federal funds to pay for transportation to the United States, but participants cover their expenses while they are here. In response to a question from a webinar audience member, Dowson said that money spent on the trade missions is well-spent. “Customers like to see the quality of the product in person that they are going to import,” said Dowson. “The people who go overseas find it valuable to meet potential buyers that they might not otherwise know about. We have found that a lot of sales are generated from inbound and outbound travel.”

    David Lakeman, manager of the Division of Cannabis Regulation, spoke about the administering of the industrial hemp, medical cannabis, and adult use cannabis programs. Lakeman said that a great amount of growth has been seen in this sector and there has been a lot of innovation. In 2019, 7,141.03 acres of hemp were planted and 5,233.20 acres were harvested. He noted there were 800 licensed hemp growers and 364 licensed hemp processors. Regarding medical cannabis, there has been $331,223 in sales this year and $581,958 in sales of adult use cannabis this year.