Re-Diversifying Illinois’ Production Food System

When you think back to your town’s farming history, do you think of simpler times? There was a local butcher shop that supplied the local deli with fresh locally-raised meats directly from the community and back to the community. Local mills ground the grains for bakers.  An area auction barn sold surplus items from the farmers and surrounding communities. Most things that communities truly required to stay healthy came from local family farms. Back in those days farm families were focused on taking care of the needs of their families and farms first, and then the needs of the local community, and not the needs of a country half way around the globe. Today it is often just the reverse, local needs are met from far away countries at a cost to our own communities.

Above all else, farmers in those simpler days were aware keenly aware of the reality that soil health was key to providing for the needs of a healthy community.  Diversity in crop production helped to feed the soil, which in turn, helped to feed the community. Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.” He couldn’t have been more right.  Today, farmers have lost sight of the idea that soil is the source of food and this has been replaced with the idea that more money is the source of food.  This all happened during the Farm Crisis of the late 70s and early 80s. During that time a large percentage of farmers lost their land and those that were left to manage the land were convinced that their own understanding of their soil’s needs should be replaced with dependence on agribusiness services. Agrichemical corporations promised greater yields and better soil health through the use of synthetic inputs. The one person that had the closest contact to the land became dependent on someone else who had a limited interest in that individual farm. The uniqueness of each family farm was lost to the principles of factory farming.

As we try to feed an ever growing world with corn and soybeans we are adding to the growing input costs needed for each bushel of grain, which in turn must be shipped to far away markets to recoup for the added production cost. Currently, the answer to the growing demand to feed an ever growing population has been to grow more bushels per acre. This continuous demand on the soil has greatly affected the health of the food production system and it is not sustainable.  With corn being the crop with the highest input cost, combined with one of the highest environmental costs, is it a good choice to focus most of Illinois’s acres in corn production? Illinois grows only 4 percent of the food we currently consume with 96% being imported from outside of the state. Most of our land is dedicated to corn production, yet we hardly eat any of that corn. Only 1% of the corn grown in the U.S. is consumed directly as food, with most of it going to ethanol or livestock feed. Given this data, is the focus on producing more bushels of corn per acre a viable solution to sustaining life into the future? This dependence on imported produce making up 96% of the food consumed in Illinois just does not make sound agricultural sense, knowing that Illinois has some of the richest soils in the world. I am not saying we quit growing corn. I am saying it does not make sense to focus most of our current energy solely on this widespread export production system when we are spending even more on importing our own food. I’d like to see a shift in our agricultural system; something a little closer to the agriculture of our grandparents, where farmers are once again are in touch with the soil and understand how to manage it without large amounts of unsustainable synthetic inputs and where farming once again directly supports our families and our communities.