Illinois Review 2018

Political changes, bumper crops and tighter profit margins marked the farm environment in Illinois in 2018. Here are a few highlights — and lowlights — of the year.

Election brings big political changes

Following a campaign by financial heavyweights, billionaire J.B Pritzker unseated multi-millionaire Bruce Rauner in the gubernatorial race — one of the most expensive campaigns in history.

Changes in the legislature are also historic. For the first time since 1948, Illinois will have a Democratic governor and super majorities in both the House and Senate.

“There are a lot more legislators that have no ag experience, and a lot more of an urban approach to things,” said Kevin Semlow, who tracks state legislation for the Illinois Farm Bureau. “That will be a lot more opportunity to educate these members about the importance of agriculture.”

Bumper crops

High yields clogged storage bins and resulted in some long lines at elevators.

Joe Thompson, general manager of Alliance Grain Co., saw unprecedented grain deliveries at Alliance’s flagship facility.

“We set a record two separate days on trucks dumped here at our Gibson City facility,” he said. “We had about 440 loads two different days. We’ve already got 70 percent of our projection company-wide.”

Early August rains put a short hold on grain deliveries. But the pace picked up quickly after.

Trade wars and low prices

These two items tend to go together. Corn and soybean prices were already low coming into 2018. Ongoing trade negotiations with Mexico and Canada over the North American Free Trade Agreement and proposals to revamp agreements with other trade partners including the EU and Japan didn’t help.

When President Donald Trump opened a full-fledged trade war with China this spring and summer, soybean prices dropped roughly $2 in two months.

The USDA eventually put together a payment program aimed at helping farmers hurt by the trade wars and those payments have been going to farmers in recent weeks.

A tentative deal on the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) to replace NAFTA was reached in the fall, but that deal must still be approved by Congress in 2019.

There has also been a temporary truce in the trade war with China, but that so far hasn’t led to much of an export or price boost.

Hay, cover crop shortages

A dry fall and winter at the end of 2017 cut into hay production, creating shortages for some livestock producers.

“If you get away from my area, you hear stories about people selling their herd because they’re out of water and feed,” said David Smith Jr., who produces hay near Roodhouse, in Greene County. “By the time spring gets here, everybody will be pretty much out of hay.”

Don Brown, president of the Illinois Forage and Grassland Council, said a big carryover has kept many producers from desperation. But stores are being cleaned out.

In addition, farmers faced a shortage of some cover crop seeds, especially cereal rye. A short crop in Oregon the previous year was one driver. Also, early harvest in parts of the Midwest opened up more acreage to cover crops.

Dairy producers struggle with low prices

Low milk prices forced dairy producers to find innovative ways to cut costs on the farm. That included achieving higher efficiency and holding off on major purchases. Feed is another area where producers cut corners.

Kurtis Johnson, who farms near Greenville, concentrates on the most economical means of feeding his Bond County herd. He made an extra effort to cut alfalfa and corn silage at the opportune time to get the maximum amount of milk production.

Ag schools face dwindling enrollments

The extended fiscal crisis in Illinois government had a major effect on universities, with ag college enrollment falling along with the overall student populations.

While all four universities with ag colleges — the University of Illinois, Southern Illinois University, Illinois State and Western Illinois — suffered, SIU saw the biggest drop.

The university overall saw enrollment fall from nearly 25,000 students in 1991 to fewer than 15,000 in 2017. The state’s second largest ag college at SIU also saw enrollment drop, though not nearly at as drastic a pace.

The University of Illinois did give new life to the retired horticulture research program at Dixon Springs Agricultural Center. Row-crop and specialty research was discontinued in 2016 as a cost-cutting move years earlier.

Nat Williams is Southern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.