Agriculture: The Backbone of the Midwest

Agriculture: The Backbone of the Midwest Main Photo

27 Jun 2024

The Midwest is often called “America’s Breadbasket” because much of the nation’s crops are produced there. With over 127 million acres of farmland across the region – 75 percent of that being corn and soybeans and 25 percent growing more specialty crops like alfalfa, fruits, vegetables and other grains – the industry brings in around $152 billion annually, with farms netting approximately $27 billion.

Illinois’ 72,000 farms contribute significantly to the Midwest’s agriculture industry. Nearly 75 percent – or 27 million acres – of the state is farmland. The USDA’s 2022 Census of Agriculture counts over 750 farms and over 280,000 acres of farmland in Morgan County and over 250 farms and nearly 105,000 acres in Scott County. Crops -  mostly soybeans and corn for grain - are grown on 340,000 acres, while the other 45,000 acres are pastureland and woodland. It is a considerable portion of land and an even more significant portion of the economy.

Change on the Horizon

Like most industries, agriculture is undergoing significant changes resulting from various factors, like shifts in weather patterns, technological advancements, supply chain disruptions, and artificial intelligence (AI). These trends are truly shaping the future of agriculture, influencing everything from farming practices to food security to global relations.  

Shifts in Weather Patterns

It’s no secret that global weather patterns are shifting. Changes in weather patterns – like significant drought, flooding, rising temperatures and a slight shift in seasons – create significant challenges to the agriculture industry. From water levels to pests, crop yields and livestock productivity are constantly threatened, resulting in the need for transformative changes in how, what and how much farmers produce.

Extreme weather directly impacts the global economy, creating shortages of necessities, disrupting the transport of goods, and indirectly causing global conflicts that result in expensive fuel, damaged goods and desperation. Each event passes its costs along to the consumer, so farmers play an integral role in keeping things available and affordable.

Technology is Growing…Rapidly

For many farmers in our region, technological advances keep the crops growing. From hybrid seeds to precision agriculture, farmers are quickly adopting these new practices and products to keep their businesses profitable and production plentiful.

“The advancements in agriculture have been jaw-dropping in some facets,” said Tim Greene, president of the seed division of Burrus Seed, a regional, family-owned hybrid seed corn supplier. “We’ve just scratched the surface with different seed traits and technologies.” Burrus Seed is investing in research and development with a team that looks at parameters like population dynamics and proper seed placement of each specific product to help decipher the best possible environment for those products to flourish.

“One of the projects we keep expanding is working on the net effective stand relationships and ear weight in comparison to final yield,” Greene shared. Burrus is working to create and select high-performing seed varieties, optimize planting techniques and manage environmental conditions to ensure that as many plants as possible produce large, healthy ears of corn. “The challenge to us is to help the farmer-grower utilize the information to improve the overall decision making and, ultimately, their bottom line.”

This isn’t Burrus Seed’s first set of challenges. The company was founded in 1935 on the coattails of the Great Depression, and in its nearly 90 years of business, Burrus has stood the test of time as a trusted partner in the farming industry. The company continues to stay ahead of the game, constantly watching trends in technology and AI.

“Motor On. Adapt.”

Of course, farmers are the key players in the agriculture game. And Jon Freeman, the self-proclaimed “head honcho” of Freeman Seed, a family-operated farm in Murrayville  specializing in corn, soybeans, forages and turf grass, works hard to stay on top of new technologies. “We like to try new technology firsthand so we can pass it on to customers. We’re using GPS and mapping on our machinery, which has helped us be better managers,” Freeman said. “We can put inputs where they need to be instead of all over the field, so that helps with costs and efficiency.”

Freeman uses John Deere’s See and Spray crop sprayer, which uses computer vision technology and machine learning to target in-season weeds in corn, soybean and cotton. This sprayer helps reduce herbicide use, generating cost savings and helping farmers operate more sustainably. Freeman keeps an eye on the new biologicals hitting the market and stays selective on who he does business with.

The Farm recognizes the importance of plant breeding and genetic advancements. "If we had the same varieties we did ten years ago, we wouldn’t have grown much of anything." Freeman said. The development of new plant genetics has significantly improved yields and resilience. “We’re also working on a product put on the corn seed to replace part of the nitrogen instead of using chemicals. Agriculture is the best steward of the land, and we must keep it healthy. Motor on. Adapt.”  

Investing in People to Stay Ahead in Agriculture

Though technically retired, Gerry Beard is still selling and offering his consulting services at Beard Implement. The company was founded in 1937 in Arenzville as a single location selling Allis Chalmers tractors and combines to an equipment dealership with locations across the Midwest. And the company continues to introduce new brands and machines that help its customers stay ahead of trends.

“Precision Farming farmers can do more with their management practices: they’re able to see exactly where equipment is located, how much fuel is needed and at what speed things are running just by looking at a phone or tablet,” said Beard. “They’re able to manage better and increase their efficiency.”

The company has expanded its team of Advanced Farming Systems (AFS) and GPS employees. “We’re hiring more employees to help farmers with these technological advances,” Beard shared. “We’ve seen the importance of these roles to better serve our customers. That’s what we’re trying to do: create the best support network for our customers as we possibly can.”

Beard Implement is embracing the growth in consolidation and specialty farms, which requires investment in its employees’ education. Agriculture’s importance to the Midwest workforce creates a wide range of job opportunities and growth opportunities in various areas, from technology to operations. “Agriculture provides so many jobs and plays a vital role in the global food source,” Beard said. “It is the backbone of America and will continue to be for years to come.”

It Takes a Community

The Cass-Morgan Farm Bureau (CMFB), part of the Illinois Farm Bureau and American Farm Bureau Federation, is a membership organization that has been around for over a century. As a grassroots organization, it plays an important role in educating the community about the importance of agriculture. “I spend a lot of time gathering information about issues impacting our members,” said Lindsay Ryan, county manager at CMFB. “We’re helping to educate and connect our communities, young and old, to local issues impacting the industry.”

CMFB’s Ag in the Classroom program brings the world of agriculture to school-aged children. From farm tours for kids to educational workshops for teachers looking to incorporate agriculture into their daily lessons, the team is helping develop the future of the agriculture industry. Additionally, family-friendly events, workshops, forums and other educational initiatives provide members and non-members the opportunity to learn…and grow!

Members are also encouraged to get involved in the issues. The Illinois Farm Bureau also gives members an opportunity to get involved in agriculture activism through its political action committee ACTIVATOR, Adopt-a-Legislator to assist members with building long-term personal relationships with legislators from across the state, Allies in Agriculture to help improve relationships with county and local officials and even voting guides to help members keep track of important legislation.

Whether you’re a farmer, agribusiness professional or simply someone who loves to eat, you’re a huge contributor to the agriculture industry. “Our organization is for anyone with a passion for or interest in agriculture. You don’t have to be a farmer or landowner to join CMFB!” Ryan said. “Our goals are always changing as we host more local events and bring new directors to the board. Fresh perspectives give us new ideas for how we can educate the community about their food and the need for agriculture in their lives.”

Collaboration. Adaptation. Resilience. 

The agriculture industry is at a critical juncture, facing unprecedented challenges and opportunities. As we enter the heart of the summer growing season, extreme weather and supply change issues loom in the distance. But with technology, early adopters and supportive, educated partners throughout the agriculture industry, these challenges can be easily navigated to ensure a secure and sustainable food future. As Tim Greene puts it, “It truly is an exciting time to be involved in agriculture.” 
Jacksonville Regional Economic Development Corporation (JREDC) is Eager to Assist Businesses and families that make up the agricultural backbone in Morgan County are huge assets to our local economy and workforce. We’re proud of the work they’re doing to support each other and the community every day. And here at JREDC, we’re proud to support you.

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