Ag group: Capitalize on Illinois' powerhouse status

Ag group: Capitalize on Illinois' powerhouse status

URBANA — Lots of folks in Illinois agriculture have spent months trying to figure out how the state can become a bigger and better powerhouse in producing and marketing food.

Today, the group, chaired by former University of Illinois President Bob Easter, unveiled a 90-page report recommending how to accomplish that.

Among the suggestions:

— Create an Illinois Council for Food and Agriculture to help lead the way.

— Host a global food and agriculture symposium starting in 2018 to establish Chicago and Illinois as global leaders in food and agriculture.

— Form a higher-education food and agriculture consortium to attract the best students and strengthen academic programs.

— Expand financing opportunities for farmers and entrepreneurs.

— Establish food and agriculture clusters across the state.

— Reduce waste streams and cut waste in food production and distribution.

— Create an Illinois "brand" that includes the food and agriculture system.

The recommendations were made by the Leadership Council of FARM Illinois, a diverse group of ag-related interests that began meeting last fall. But seeds for the project were planted in October 2013 when an Illinois Food and Agriculture Summit was held in Chicago.

"The key recommendation is the establishment of the council to continue to move this forward," Easter said Tuesday shortly after the report was released.

"After we get the council in place, the next step is having a major global conference to begin marketing what we are," Easter said. "For many years, Illinois has been the center of the global ag economy, but we've never really claimed credit for that."

Easter said "there's got to be some place where food and agriculture (interests) cluster in the next decade, and it ought to be in the Midwest. It ought be in Illinois."

The FARM Illinois group recognized that the state has lots of strengths, including plentiful farmland and natural resources, an extensive transportation system, a wealth of research institutions and a solid manufacturing base.

Last year, the report noted, Illinois ranked first among the 50 states in soybean production, second in corn production and fourth in hog inventory and sales.

But the group also cited challenges in the state, including a lack of coordinated leadership, poor business and financial conditions, a need for more infrastructure investment and low visibility for Illinois agriculture.

All this comes at a time when the world is demanding more food and a greater variety in diet, the report noted.

Easter said implementing the recommendations could benefit the University of Illinois by providing employment opportunities for graduates and research opportunities for faculty.

"Stanford (University) capitalizes on being in the middle of Silicon Valley," he said. "Should we not be able to capitalize on developments in food and agriculture?"

The full FARM Illinois report can be found at farmillinois.org.

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