Q&A with new Illinois ag director: ‘I have the ability to talk the language’

Q&A with new Illinois ag director: ‘I have the ability to talk the language’

When he was in the Illinois Senate, John Sullivan was the only farmer there and became the de facto spokesman for ag.

Now he's Gov. J.B. Pritzker's new director of the Illinois Department of Agriculture, overseeing everything from meat inspections to medical cannabis.

He opened up tp News-Gazette Media's Ben Zigterman about his ag background, his priorities and what the state can do to improve exports of Illinois crops.

Ben Zigterman: First, want to start out with what some of your background in agriculture is?

John Sullivan: I was born and raised over in West Central Illinois. I was actually born in McDonough County just outside of Macomb. My folks farmed in addition to other work, but certainly farmed their entire life. So I lived on a grain and livestock farm first in McDonough County and then in Hancock County, and then I currently live and reside on a farm that my wife and I own and operate just north of Rushville in Schuyler County. And I graduated from high school in Hamilton, Illinois in 1977, graduated from Quincy College, now Quincy University, in 1981 with a degree in history and moved to Rushville pretty shortly thereafter.

BZ: What do you grow?

JS: Corn, soybeans, wheat, hay, clover, and we have a small cow-calf operation. Just 19 head of cows, but a small cow herd as well.

BZ: How did you advocate for agriculture as a state senator?

JS: When I was elected to the Senate, I had no idea that I would become really the spokesperson for agriculture in the Senate, and perhaps in the General Assembly. When I was elected, there was one other gentleman from Will County that was a farmer, but he took another position and left the General Assembly about two years after I was there. So shortly after I arrived there, I was the only member of the Illinois State Senate. Out of 59 senators, I was the only one that was involved in production agriculture and the only one that really had any knowledge of agriculture. So because of that limited number of individuals with that expertise, I soon became the spokesperson for agriculture, and certainly served on the ag committee in my entire time that I was in the Senate and was the chairman of that committee for a good deal of the time that I was there as well. So, in that capacity, we went through some very tough fiscal years, but always was trying to advocate for agriculture in my capacity as a spokesperson, as much as I could.

BZ: Do you think it's important for the Illinois Agriculture director to have a farming background?

JS: I think it's important. I'm not saying its an absolute necessity, but I do think it's very important, and really, it comes down to just general knowledge of agriculture, so that when, for example, when I sit down with either employees here at the Department of Ag or representatives of the various commodity groups and organizations, or just individual farmers and ranchers out there, that I have the ability to talk the language. In other words, if we're talking about issues in the livestock industry, or in the grain industry, or whatever that industry related to agriculture is. Just that broad general knowledge of what goes on in agriculture and what some of our challenges are. I guess the term I've used in the past is it gives me credibility. And it lets those folks know that I certainly understand as much as possible the issues that farmers and the ag industry is facing.

BZ: What are your and the administration's priorities going to be regarding agriculture?

JS: The governor put together a number of transition committees, close to a dozen of them. One of them was the ag transition committee, and I was a co-chair along with Colleen Callahan. She and I were the co-chairs of that committee and that was really a great opportunity to get an idea of what agriculture, and the folks that represent agriculture, what some of their priorities are looking ahead. So that ag committee was given the task to put together recommendations that we could present to Governor Pritzker that would help promote agriculture and grow the ag economy and create jobs and that was our direction.

So that committee was made up of 25 to 30 different individuals representing a very wide and diverse group of ag interests from across the state. For example, obviously the commodity groups were there, corn and soybeans and pork and beef, etc. Farm Bureau had representatives there, as well, so that's kind of on the ag farmer side of it. But on the other end of the spectrum we had folks from the city of Chicago that have an interest in urban agriculture and including legislators and folks that represent those areas of the state. So, when I first saw the list of the folks that were on this committee my concern was that we're never going to be reach consensus on anything because it's such a diverse group. But I was immediately pleased and saw that we recognized that we have some differences but let's set those aside, and let's come up with solutions. Let's do what we were asked to do, and so we made a number of recommendations to the governor. And that was put out in a report.

That's a long way around to answer your question, but we have several priorities. One of them is simply try to grow the rural economy. So not necessarily just agriculture, but areas out in the state that we're seeing a loss in population, and do what we can to try to have people either move to those areas or stay there after they get out of school and what have you. So one of the things that this committee identified is the need for some infrastructure, and specifically internet and broadband services to those areas. And I know from a personal experience that slow or limited internet service is definitely a hindrance to operating a business, whether it's your farm or a business or just you know doing work out of your home.

I know from my experience as a partner in my family's auction business how important that is to have high speed internet. In this day and age with the internet and the technology that's out there, it is just a big part of doing business, and if you don't have those services, it can definitely be a way that will hamper in the growth of your business and perhaps even the location of where you're going to do business.

BZ: What's the status of industrial hemp?

JS: So last year, the General Assembly here in Springfield passed the Industrial Hemp Act, and then also at the federal level, the Farm Bill that was passed late last year also had a provision in there for industrial hemp. And so those two things have certainly spurred an unbelievable amount of interest from folks all across the state. There's been multiple meetings at various locations across the state. They have been all very well attended. They were expecting maybe 50 or 75 people and 250 people would show up almost at every one of these meetings.

So the General Assembly passed the Industrial Hemp Act last year. The Department of Ag's role is to write the rules or do the rulemaking for that legislation. We put those rules together. We've made them public. We've allowed people to make comments and suggestions with regard to those rules. And right now, as we sit here today, we are taking in those suggestions and recommendations, and in some cases, making adjustments to the original rules. But ultimately, we will present our final set of rules to JCAR, which is a Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, a legislative committee at the Capitol, and they will review those rules and either accept them and or send them back to the department to make changes if they see that that needs to be done.

Our ultimate goal, and I'm no expert on hemp, but I'm told that the ideal time to plant hemp, or the season to put that seed in the ground, is around June 1. We are going to do everything that we can here at the department to try to make that, to have everything done, so that folks could if they want to, be able to plant that this year. That's our goal.

BZ: Is there anything the Illinois Department of Agriculture does that surprised you?

JS: There is actually, probably several things. But one thing that comes to mind is the Department of Ag, and I knew they played a role in medical cannabis. So about three or four years ago, the General Assembly passed the Medical Cannabis (Pilot Program) Act, and the Department of Ag's role is that we're responsible for the licensure of the growers, or they call them cultivators, the folks that grow medical cannabis, number one. And then we have the oversight and making sure that everybody's doing their job properly. So I knew the department did that.

What I didn't know is that these medical cannabis growers or cultivators, they not only grow the cannabis for medical use but they also process it. It's the final product, and I did not know that. I thought that was another step that was done somewhere else or by somebody else, but it's actually the growers. They grow it, they process it, they put it into the final products that are sent then to the medical dispensaries. And so I toured a medical cannabis grower facility here just a week or so ago, and that was something that I was not aware of, that they are actually processing the final product. So in some cases it's a product that is put into a cigarette-type form, or smoke, but there's also oils. There's also, they were making chocolate bars that had cannabis in it, and it was just quite a fascinating process to see from start to finish what the Department of Ag's role is in that. So that was pretty interesting.

BZ: What can you do at the state level to help farmers with low crop prices and trade concerns?

JS: I wish I had a good answer for it. Our hands are somewhat tied. At the federal level, with the trade wars that are going on and the tariffs that have been implemented, obviously, that is done at the federal level. The (Illinois) Department of Agriculture is certainly limited in what we can do. We certainly try to make sure that the ag community is aware of dates and timeframes as far as programs that people need to be enrolled in or be aware of.

Back when there was a government shutdown for 30 some days, I came in at the end of that, but there were some things that the department did do. The Department of Ag is responsible, along with the federal government on doing meat inspections at processing slaughterhouses. And when there was a shut down, those meat inspectors at the federal level, they were not being paid. So, the Department of Ag in the state of Illinois worked with the feds and those meat inspectors to make sure that they were paid, so that they were on the job because obviously food safety is important. And for obvious reasons, we want to make sure that the folks that needed to be there were there. And so we worked through some of those issues until that government shutdown was addressed. As far as what the Department of Ag can do with some of those commodity prices, quite honestly, it's pretty limited in what we could do to help that situation.

BZ: Could you do more like trade missions to promote Illinois crops?

JS: Absolutely, and even maybe more important is the reverse of that, and that is something that I did not realize the department had been doing, and currently is doing. And that is, instead of us going to different on different trade missions, which is something I would certainly be very interested in. But on the reverse side is inviting different countries and trade missions to come to Illinois and to promote our products and our state and our commodities to either other countries and/or other organizations that are involved in and interested in exporting products from Illinois to their countries.

And so the Department of Ag currently plays a role in that. We have folks that are working on different trade missions, working with the exporters in the state of Illinois to set up those trade missions where folks come to Illinois. We show them what we have to offer and try to develop those markets. And looking ahead, I think that's going to be very important. Now, ultimately, we hope that the tariffs are taken off and that trade, especially with China, is that we come to a resolution. But, the ag industry and the marketing-of-ag folks, we spent years and years and decades of developing those markets. Our fear is that the trade tariffs and the trade wars that are going on has eroded that trust and that relationship. Obviously, we're going to have to work very hard to make sure that we get those markets up and going again, but also try to find some additional markets that we can sell our products to.

BZ: What can the state do to promote sustainable farming practices like cover crops?

JS: We've got a division here, a bureau here at the Department of ag that is actually working very closely with the ag community and soil and water conservation districts to promote sustainable ag in the state, to certainly support cover crops and tillage practices, or no till practices that reduces erosion and to make farms and soils sustainable.

We had a conference here in Springfield right after I took over here at the Department of Ag, and it was very well attended—there was 200 or 300 people there. Farmers from all across the state. I had some speakers there to talk about what we can do as farmers to reduce erosion, to reduce our input costs, and certainly, the application of fertilizer and chemicals, of ways that we can reduce that, so we're not using any more than we absolutely need to, for obvious reasons, both for the environment, but from a bottom line dollar standpoint. So that was very interesting to me. I was really pleased to find out the department's role in that and the participation from farmers all across the state.

I know, from a personal level, on our farming operation, I've been using no-till for a number of years on my wheat and soybeans, and then last year, I started strip tilling my corn. Just ways that we can reduce erosion and also reduce some of those input costs. It's worked for me, and certainly, we'll do what we can here at the Department of Ag to encourage that.

BZ: Should the state offer payments to incentivize these practices?

JS: I know some other states have done that. And we have had discussions with folks here in the department to see if that was a program that we could do as well. And so we are looking into it.

Obviously, it takes it takes resources. It takes dollars to do that. But working with some of the stakeholders here, I think it's something that we're very interested in and hope that we can see make happen.