Richard Guebert Jr.

Richard Guebert Jr.

Harvest done, but farmers still busy

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By Richard Guebert Jr.

As snow blankets our frozen fields, winter is a time of reflection for farmers. What worked well, what could we do better and what challenges will the upcoming spring bring? Those are questions we ask ourselves as we ring in the new year and begin planning for the next planting season.

At Illinois Farm Bureau (IFB), winter is a time for farmers across the state to come together to see old friends, make connections and learn new strategies to build and strengthen our food systems.

GSWNH RichardGuebert 070822

Richard Guebert Jr.

American consumers today are increasingly concerned with what to put on their family’s table. They want to know where their food is grown and who’s producing it. Whether it’s choosing organic or locally sourced fruits, vegetables, meats or other food products, consumers want to feel connected to their food producers and confident in their choices.

It’s a unique opportunity for farmers – big and small – to tell our story.

That’s why IFB collaborated with the Illinois Specialty Growers Association (ISGA) and the Illinois Farmers Market Association (IFMA) to create the largest, most inclusive local food event in Illinois. From food to flowers, the Everything Local Conference connected local growers, farmers, farmers market associates and business owners to build alliances and partnerships.

Illinois’ agriculture production goes far beyond corn and soybeans. Farmers across the state produce a wide range of specialty crops, a diverse variety of fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, horticulture and floriculture. Illinois ranks first in the nation for pumpkin and horseradish production, and among the top 10 in asparagus, cauliflower, fresh-cut herbs, green beans, lima beans, mustard greens and snap peas.

Illinois also ranks third in the nation for the number of farmers markets, where consumers can purchase farm-fresh, affordable, convenient and healthy products.

The Everything Local Conference brought together such producers to learn new ways to strengthen and build the local food supply chain. It was also a time for celebration for all the hard work our farmers put in day in and day out.

The ISGA honored Amelia and Michael Howard, of Cook County, and Tom Schwartz, of Randolph County, with the 2022 ISGA Award of Excellence.

The Howards – long recognized as “urban farmers” before “urban farming” was popularized – have led the way for growers in their community. Their work has ushered in more than 25 years of agricultural education and created a safe haven for children in the Fuller Park community of Chicago through farming experiences that connect them with nature, agriculture and the world around them.

Schwartz is another strong leader among specialty crop producers. His extensive knowledge of horticulture and marketing has amplified the industry while teaching how horticulture can serve communities. ISGA was honored to recognize Schwartz for being a bright light for many specialty crop families, as well as a major supporter within the industry.

Many other specialty crop producers were recognized throughout the conference. Two fan favorite competitions also returned: the Illinois State horticulture Society’s 33rd Illinois and National Sweet Cider Contests and the 20th National Hard Cider Contest.

This year, Joe Ringhausen of Joe Ringhausen Orchards in Fieldon took home the gold as the No.1 overall rated cider. His cider blends Jonathan, Golden Delicious, Red Delicious and Fuji apples for a winning combination. Wiles Family Orchard of Fairchild placed first in the Hard Cider contest as repeat champions. Their hard cider blends Gold Rush, Golden Delicious and Fuji apples.

Who doesn’t love a cup of cold, refreshing cider after a hard day’s work? Illinois is lucky to have such wonderful orchards.

Building and strengthening the local food supply chain wasn’t the only goal this winter. In late January, about 500 young and beginning farmers attended IFB’s annual Young Leader Conference to tackle challenges facing the next generation of farmers.

IFB’s Young Leader Chair, Sadie Asher, of Henry County, outlined her priorities for the coming year. With more IFB members over the age of 90 than under 35, Asher called on her fellow young leaders to strengthen the organization’s membership and recruit younger voices.

Our young farmers’ talent was also displayed during the 2023 American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) annual meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Evan Hultine, a Bureau County farmer, received third place in the AFBF Young Farmers and Ranchers Achievement Award competition. Kaylee Heap, of Kendall County, ranked fourth in the AFBF Excellence in Agriculture competition; and Ryan Reeverts of Ogle County was honored to represent Illinois in the AFBF Young Leader Discussion Meet.

Winter is a period of downtime. That is a true statement for many farmers, but we’re not staying idle. Illinois farmers continue to develop new best practices for their businesses and celebrate those who are making our industry stronger, better and more efficient for future generations.

Richard Guebert Jr. is president of the Illinois Farm Bureau. This op-ed was distributed through a cooperative project between Illinois Farm Bureau and the Illinois Press Association. For more food and farming news, visit FarmWeekNow.com.

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