07/31/2015 01:15 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Locally Grown Food Could Be Good for Illinois' Economy

Editor's Note: The landscape in rural Illinois is changing rapidly as family farms give way to industrial agricultural production. This change is having a profound impact on the economic and social life of Illinois' rural communities. Less well known, but just as significant, this landscape change is also adversely affecting both Illinois' economy and food sources. This Policy Profile from the Northern Illinois University Center from Governmental Studies explores these changes and offers suggestions which can help correct some of the resulting problems.

While Illinois has some of the richest soil in the world, the state's farms now produce only four percent of the food consumed in the state. The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity has estimated that the state has the ability to produce 85 percent of the food its residents and visitors consume. Where is the disconnect?

One answer is that economic considerations have rendered the family farm, once the backbone of Illinois' agricultural economy, obsolete. To make matters even worse, the federal government's agricultural subsidies, originally intended to protect and maintain family farms, now serve as an added incentive to large, agribusiness enterprises--industrial farming--to expand their operations and drive family farms out of existence.

What happened to Illinois' family farms?

Illinois' flat topography encourages farmers to increase profitability by planting a single crop--most commonly corn or soybeans--across vast acreage. This is best accomplished by acquiring huge tracts of land; investing in large, expensive mechanized equipment; and planting a single crop in a field stretching across many dozens of acres. It enables a farmer to plant corn and soybeans in uniform rows; apply huge volumes of chemical fertilizers and pest controls; and expand the use of potentially harmful chemicals to increase agricultural yields in the short term. But such techniques also discourage farm operations from producing food for human consumption.

These techniques require a huge, up-front investment of capital, but they also produce huge yields, enabling the investors to sell the crops with lower profit margins. Access to such capital for investment poses relatively few problems for agri-business enterprises, but it is beyond the means of all but the most successful family farmers.

The traditional family farm, in short, can no longer compete economically with today's agri-business enterprises.

Check out the rest of the report from the Northern Illinois University Center for Governmental Studies at Reboot Illinois.

Business in other industries in Illinois is taking a hit, too, some say. The closing of a Mitsubishi plant in Normal, Ill. could be part of a larger trend in declining Illinois manufacturing as a whole, says Scott Reeder of the Illinois News Network. He says the closing is "just the latest example of manufacturing jobs disappearing from a state that was once a manufacturing powerhouse." To see what other factories have closed in Illinois, check out Reeder's list of companies at Reboot Illinois.

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