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Farm Bureau

John Sullivan, director of the Illinois Department of Agriculture, center, talks with Dan Caulkins, left, State Rep. from the 101st District and Brad Halbrook, State Rep. from the 102nd District during a gathering at the Champaign Co. Farm Bureau office in Champaign on Monday, July 29, 2019.

CHAMPAIGN — After some cheesy potatoes and peach cobbler over lunch Monday, the director of the Illinois Department of Agriculture discussed his priorities with about 40 local farmers.

It was John Sullivan’s first visit to Champaign County since taking office in January.

In between tours of Parkland College’s precision ag department and the University of Illinois’s College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, he had a working lunch at the Champaign County Farm Bureau, where topics of conversation ranged from industrial hemp to rural broadband.

Sullivan, a farmer himself and former state senator from Schuyler County in western Illinois, joked that he’s from the “garden spot of the world.”

On second thought, after receiving some playful boos, he acknowledged, “Actually, I know I’m in the garden spot of the world right here.”

One of his first priorities after taking office was figuring out how to deal with Dicamba, a herbicide that has generated hundreds of complaints because it can drift to nearby farms.

“Traditionally, we have gotten anywhere from 50 to 100 complaints on an annual basis,” he said. “In 2017, the number of complaints jumped up to 350, and in 2018, they jumped up to 550.”

In addition to new federal rules about the use of the herbicide, Illinois set a cutoff date for June 30 to apply it.

“It tends to volatilize and drift as temperatures rise and as humidity rises,” Sullivan said.

But because of all the rain Illinois received this spring, only 49 percent of soybeans had been planted in early June, so Sullivan decided to push back the cutoff date to July 15.

“A lot of people liked it, a lot of people didn’t like that decision,” Sullivan said. “But I made the decision based on what I thought was the right thing to do for farmers and agriculture in the state.”

As of Monday, just 9 percent of corn and 8 percent of soybeans are considered to be in excellent condition in Illinois. That’s down from 29 and 25 percent, respectively, from a year ago, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Meanwhile, about 20 percent of soybeans are in poor or very poor condition, up from 7 percent a year ago. Illinois corn is facing similar numbers.

Soon after he took office, Sullivan also faced the issue of industrial hemp, which Illinois and the federal government both recently legalized.

Since May 1, Sullivan said more than 1,200 applications have been submitted for licenses to grow 20,000 acres of hemp.

“I knew growing hemp was not going to be a problem in the state of Illinois,” he said, as it used to be grown here.

Hemp is utilized for a variety of things, including fibers for rope, building materials and clothing.

“What’s going to happen on the hemp market? I don’t know,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of opportunities there as well. To me, it’s exciting that we’re looking at another crop to be grown here in the state of Illinois. I like the diversity of it.”

The state agriculture department also regulates the growing and processing of medical marijuana — and beginning Jan. 1, will do the same for recreational marijuana.

“That’s a very ambitious timeline. We have to have certain things done by certain dates,” Sullivan said.

“Fortunately, and I appreciate the (Illinois) General Assembly passing the budget, they gave us a few more dollars so we can hire some staff to fill some of those positions to do this.”

Sullivan, an auctioneer, also talked about trouble he has had getting a reliable Internet connection at his rural home.

He was taking a continuing education course this spring and said he had to go to the local library to watch the webinar, as his connection wasn’t good enough.

“I have Internet service, but it’s not reliable, and it’s not consistent, and it doesn’t have the speeds that we need to run programs in this day and age,” he said.

He led an initiative that brought together Internet providers, the Illinois Farm Bureau and other stakeholders to figure out how to expand broadband access. In the recently passed capital bill, the state set aside about $400 million for broadband expansion.

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Ben Zigterman is a reporter covering business at The News-Gazette. His email is bzigterman@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@bzigterman).