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Regenerative ag, farm secession among topics discussed by state director during Bradley visit

Illinois Department of Agriculture Director Jerry Costello II
Tim Alexander
Illinois Department of Agriculture Director Jerry Costello II

Regenerative agriculture and sustaining the next generation of farmers were among the topics Illinois Agriculture Director Jerry Costello II brought to the table during a wide-ranging discussion held in the Bob Michel Student Center Auditorium on the campus of Bradley University. Costello was the guest of BU’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI).

Appealing to a new generation of growers

“The average farmer in Illinois is 56 years old,” said Costello, 54, who farms in southern Illinois. “I often talk with Governor (JB) Pritzker about how we can get more young people involved in agriculture. It gets harder and harder for some of the older farmers to swing with some of the newer technologies in agriculture.”

Part of the answer lies in increased funding and expansion of the state FFA program, a feat the Illinois General Assembly accomplished last year when it set aside funding that would allow all Illinois public school agriculture students to enroll in FFA without paying dues. This made Illinois an FFA “affiliated” state and led to an increase in the roster of state FFA members by over 18,000 students in the past year.

“FFA and 4-H, in my opinion, are the number one conduit or pipeline for colleges, universities, and agri-businesses in the state of Illinois,” Costello said.

Urban agriculture and local food production are two ways young people-- who are often shut out of modern, large-scale production farming due to barriers including land and equipment costs-- can get their hands dirty in a career farming the land.

“There are a number of food deserts in very populated areas of this state,” the Illinois Department of Agriculture (IDOA) director said. “This is something we’re really trying to work on, including accessing some United States Department of Agriculture grants.”

Other avenues of entry into a production agriculture career include specialty and organic farming, which can be done on smaller tracts of farmland.

“Involving more kids in agriculture and trying to bring them into the fold, especially from a technology aspect, is something we are very centered on at the IDOA. We have an incredible community college system in Illinois, and vocational education is something we are trying to hone in on as well,” said Costello.

Illinois farmers coming around to regenerative ag

As for regenerative agriculture practices, Costello noted that younger farmers are leading the way in adopting sustainable best management practices on their lands. These practices include increased usage of overwintering cover crops to reduce field nutrient runoff, reduced tillage passes on sensitive lands and the use of less fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides due to precision farming advances.

“Our cover crop program here in the state of Illinois has absolutely blown up,” Costello said of the IDOA’s Cover Crop Premium Discount Program that incentivizes farmers to grow soil-saving cover crops between crop rotations by offering a $5 per acre rebate on crop insurance premiums. “Five years ago our program was limited to 50,000 acres, and it took 12 days to fill

that 50,000 acres. This year, it took us six hours to fill 160,000 acres. The cover crop program is very important in that it is an area where the agricultural and environmental communities work together.”

Carbon capture is a relatively new way that farmers can work hand-in-hand with environmentalists to help preserve soils and reduce field nutrient runoff, Costello noted. He also pointed out the state’s new Conservation40 Program, which levied $3.5 million in the state's Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy (NLRS) program funding to acquire $9.8 million in federal funds in order to hire 40 new “conservation planners” over the next three years.

“Boots on the ground, out in the fields they’ll work with soil and water conservation districts to help farmers with conservation practices. It’s something that I think will be a game changer because it’s also creating a pipeline into other conservation jobs. This is bringing younger people into conservation and conservation planning moving forward,” said Costello.

Illinois agriculture by the numbers

Costello informed the largely non-farming audience of around 50 OLLI members that the IDOA is in charge of regulating many industries and standards, including gas station pump accuracy, weights and measures regulations at scale houses, nurseries, port of entry inspections of food and organic products, forestry and timber conservation industries, grain elevator inventory reports and more.

Perhaps most notably, the IDOA is in charge of regulating, inspecting and promoting the burgeoning cannabis industry in Illinois. In FY2023, the state of Illinois brought in $30,979,054 in total cultivation state tax revenue from all aspects of the medical and recreational cannabis industries, according to IDOA’s annual cannabis industry report.

“Growing up in agriculture and with a law enforcement background, I never thought I’d be in a position to promote the cannabis industry, but life puts you in strange situations sometimes,” Costello said, while cracking a smile.

Illinois receives an economic impact of around $25 billion annually from its commercial agriculture industry, according to Costello. That’s around $6 billion more in annual revenue from farming that the state received prior to Costello’s appointment in February of 2020. From that $25 billion annual impact, around $10.8 billion is derived from ag export sales, he said.

“Illinois is the number one producer of soybeans in the United States, the number two producer of corn and we’re the number four producer of pork. This year we’re the number seven producer of wheat, though historically we’re usually the ninth-through eleventh top producer in the U.S. We’re also the number one producer of horseradish and the number one producer of pumpkins in the U.S.,” Costello said. “We’re also the number one food processor in the U.S., with about 1,800 food processing companies in the state of Illinois.”

Tim Alexander is a correspondent for WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.