Residents of Illinois have a shelter-in-place order, but agriculture is not staying home.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker made the extraordinary move, effective at 5 p.m. March 21, as a means of slowing the spread of the coronavirus in the state.
The directive bans all non-essential movement outside the home and workplace. Several exemptions remain, including grocery shopping and trips to the pharmacy to obtain medications.
But agriculture is considered an “essential service,” with virtually all activities related to the industry officially allowed. That includes the processing of food and transport of both food and supplies.
The crisis has provided Jerry Costello II with a harsh introduction to his new job as director of the Illinois Department of Agriculture. Pritzker appointed Costello early in March following the forced resignation of John Sullivan.
“We stressed (the importance of agriculture) with the director of agriculture, who shared with the governor that agriculture needs to continue to operate as always,” Illinois Farm Bureau President Richard Guebert told Illinois Farmer Today.
“We talked about how vital it is to get inputs off the farm or back on the farm. He agreed with that. We’re continuing to take it day by day. The director has been phenomenal, especially considering he’s been on the job only a few weeks.”
Grain elevators are open, and trucks are still transporting grain from farms and inputs such as fertilizer and seed to distributors.
Meat and produce processors have been keeping busy. That includes Chicago-based Moisle Wholesale Food Products.
“We saw the equivalent of what would be a run on the bank over the past two weeks,” said Joel Janecek, a partner in the company. “As soon as the outbreak started to happen, restaurants were being shut down, so everyone had to switch over to retail. There was a short-term demand shock. We’re the busiest we’ve been in three years.”
Janecek said the company hired several temporary workers to keep up with the demand from retailers.
Guebert said he had heard the Cargill processing plant in Beardstown added another shift beginning March 21. Officials at Cargill did not return requests for comment.
University of Illinois Extension has joined other businesses in transitioning to work-from-home status. All face-to-face events have been either canceled, suspended or transitioned to online delivery through May 31.
The virus isn’t the only issue affecting movement of agricultural goods. Heavy rains have swelled rivers, putting questions on freight.
“I just got a text from our local elevator that it is taking corn and beans today, and beans tomorrow and Wednesday,” said Guebert, who farms near Ellis Grove, in Randolph County. The county’s western border is the Mississippi River, south of St. Louis.
“The only conflict is with our elevator on the river. The river is jumping up and they may not be able to lock any new or empty barges. The terminals are supposed to be open. We’re thankful we’re continuing to function.”