Local Food Farmer Caucus met with IDOA Director Jerry Costello to discuss priorities.
On February 22, 2021 members of the Alliance’s Local Food Farmers Caucus met (virtually) with the Illinois Department of Agriculture’s Director, Jerry Costello to build a productive relationship with the agency and share the caucus’ priorities for building local food systems.
During the meeting with Director Costello, LFFC members shared their personal experience and told stories about how the pandemic, climate change, and other events have impacted their farm businesses.
Penny Gioja of Joy of Illinois Farm in Champaign shared how the pandemic positively impacted her business. “When the store shelves in Champaign emptied out, people panicked and Googled ‘eggs and milk near me’ and found us. Our sales trended up,” she said.
In a similar vein, Shaun Tyson of Tyson Farms in Mt. Pulaski told the Director about the urgency of supporting local businesses amidst the pandemic. “If the pandemic has taught us one thing, it’s that food security is a high priority,” he said. “And one thing we can do to provide that basic human need of security is regional food distribution through community action that supports local businesses and farms.”
Amongst the exciting opportunities that farmers shared related to their businesses, there were also a few areas of concern. Many farmers are still dealing with the backlog in processing dates for their livestock. Penny Gioja expressed her concern about the bottleneck to the Director saying, “In September of 2020, when I called the locker for hogs, the earliest date we could get was December of 2021, which was a full year later. Concerned, I asked for lamb spots at the same time. We feel fortunate to have six slots for this coming September for lambs, which will not even be born until next month. The processing bottleneck has been a double whammy increasing feed costs to keep our finished animals on and losing income from animals, for which we already have buyers.”
To help address this issue, farmers asked the Director for an update on the hiring of new inspectors to staff USDA processing facilities. The lack of inspectors in Illinois has contributed significantly to the bottleneck, as butcher plants are not authorized to operate without an inspector present in most cases.
In his remarks, Director Costello said, “There will be 5-6 new inspectors by the end of the month and 6-8 others in next month after that. My goal is to get to the highest point the agency has ever seen as far as inspectors go.”
Caucus leaders also asked the Director how our Alliance could help support the agency as they work to address the livestock processing bottleneck, defend agency budget priorities, and conduct a racial equity analysis of Illinois agriculture as mandated by the recently passed Black Farmer Restoration Program Act.
The LFFC plans to continue building a relationship with Director Costello and state leaders to find new and innovative ways to build a food system that supports local diversified and regenerative farmers. Caucus leaders believe Illinois farmers can feed Illinois.