Champaign County farmers' adopted legislator now the Illinois House Majority Leader

Champaign County farmers' adopted legislator now the Illinois House Majority Leader

CHICAGO — Champaign County farmers now have the ear of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan’s right-hand man, Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago.

Named the majority leader this year, Harris has been the Champaign County Farm Bureau’s adopted legislator since he first joined the Illinois House in 2007.

“He knows some of us by name,” said Lin Warfel, who farms near Tolono. “When I see him in Springfield, he’ll say, ‘Hi Lin.’”

“He’s been down here multiple times,” said Paul Berbaum, the co-chair of the local farm bureau’s legislative committee. “He’s been in my combine before.”

These connections have helped lead to three Friend of Agriculture awards for Harris from the Illinois Farm Bureau, which gives those out based on legislators’ voting records, and local farmers who’ve met Harris said the program has given them a voice in a district where there’s no farm fields.

Rep. Harris said he loves the program and has toy tractors displayed at his office on the north side of Chicago, not far from Wrigley Field.

“This is probably one of the best programs I’ve seen around the state,” he said. “I have learned so much that I would never have otherwise known about — about agriculture, about agribusiness, about central Illinois priorities.”

He said it’s affected his stance on issues such as land use, rights of way and windmills.

“It’s such an effective program,” Harris said. “It’s totally changed the way I look at my job and a lot of the bills I have had to vote on.”

And Harris said he’s proud of his Friend of Agriculture recognition.

“When people come to my office, it gives me a way to talk about how big our state of Illinois is, and how many different people we have, and how many different industries we have, and why we can’t just think of ourselves in isolation,” he said.

While Harris grew up in “some pretty rural areas,” he said, “that wasn’t the business my dad was in, so every time I come down, I learn something new.”

Besides his visits to Champaign County, area farmers have made stops at his Chicago office over the years.

“I’ve met some of the nicest people on the face of the earth,” Harris said.

The Illinois Farm Bureau runs the Adopt-a-Legislator program, which began in the late ’90s, pairing local farm bureaus with urban legislators.

“We sit down with the legislator to find out if they’re interested,” said Kevin Semlow, the Illinois Farm Bureau’s director of state legislation. 

Then if they’re interested, they’ll try to find a local farm bureau the legislator is interested in.

“Some of them have family members in another downstate county, sometimes they have a common industry,” Semlow said.

Prior to last fall’s election, there were an all-time high of 71 adopted legislators, according to Semlow.

Harris was matched with Champaign County, simply because he was the successor to its previous adopted legislator, Larry McKeon.

Area farmers said their visits to Chicago have helped them understand where Harris is coming from.

“We realize that he can’t represent us on everything, when there’s a difference between how something impacts his particular area on the north side of Chicago versus ours or the rest of the state,” Warfel said. “His area doesn’t know anything about livestock besides eating a hamburger.”

But Warfel said their visits with him have helped Harris understand where they’re coming from on regulations about pollution the livestock industry faces.

We were able “to come up with reasonable regulations for things like pollution,” Warfel said.

Brad Uken, the manager of the Champaign County Farm Bureau, agreed.

“It’s a two-way street where we’re able to share ag issues with a very urban legislator that has virtually no agriculture in his district,” he said. “And it’s been a learning experience for us, also, to better understand some of the issues that are important in his district.”

Champaign County farmers are excited that they’ll have the ear of the second-most-powerful legislator in the Illinois House after Speaker Madigan named him the majority leader in January.

“He’s a really good friend of (Gov. J.B. Pritzker), and basically, he’s Madigan’s right-hand man,” Berbaum said. “Hopefully he’ll put in a good word for the farmers when things come up that affect us.”

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