Illinois County Fair Queen Amelia Martens is flanked by Gov. Pat Quinn (left) and Illinois Agriculture Director Bob Flider during a photo shoot on the steps of the state Capitol. Hundreds of FFA students gathered for the annual Illinois Agricultural Legislative Day to deliver gift baskets to state legislators.
Illinois County Fair Queen Amelia Martens is flanked by Gov. Pat Quinn (left) and Illinois Agriculture Director Bob Flider during a photo shoot on the steps of the state Capitol. Hundreds of FFA students gathered for the annual Illinois Agricultural Legislative Day to deliver gift baskets to state legislators.

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Messages of hope for the future mixed with concerns about the financial shape of the state as young people, legislators and members of ag commodity groups came together for the Illinois Agricultural Legislative Day.

Hundreds of FFA members gathered at the state Capitol to continue an annual tradition in which they fill baskets and boxes with food and other goods taken from farms across the state and then deliver them to politicians.

“You are going to face more challenges than those of us who have been on this planet for a lot of years,” said state Rep. Jim Sacia, R-Pecatonica, a member of the House Agriculture Committee. “The changes are facing you, young folks. You’re going to face a very difficult agriculture community than what I and many in this room did.”

Sacia railed against environmental activists whom he said are responsible for halting the establishment of a large dairy farm in his northeastern Illinois district. It is particularly egregious, he said, because the district has lost 11,000 dairy cows in the past 20 years.

A plan by a California ag entrepreneur to start up a 5,000-cow dairy in the region was thwarted by state regulations and environmentalists using the courts to effect constant delays, according to Sacia. Eventually, the plan was abandoned and the dairy was established in Wisconsin.

“He did everything right. He followed all the environmental regulations. He went through all the proper procedures,” Sacia said.

“He had spent over $2 million developing his property. It would have brought hundreds of new jobs to northwestern Illinois.

“There was challenge after challenge in the courts. Everything he tried to do, they threw a roadblock. For us in agriculture, we have to speak up. The gentleman reached a point where he just packed his tent and left the state of Illinois.”

Such experiences require that those in agriculture fight for the future of the industry, according to Sacia.

“Typically, we’re a quiet group,” he said. “But we cannot let this kind of thing happen.”

Illinois Farm Bureau President Phil Nelson decried Illinois’ financial state while holding hope that legislators will work together to help dig out of the mess. He noted that one speaker at a recent ag summit in Decatur wondered aloud how Abraham Lincoln would react to the condition of the state.

“That phrase caught my attention,” he said. “What would Lincoln think about $7.5 billion in unpaid bills? You look at unfunded pension liability nearing $100 billion.

“I would think he would look at that and say there’s got to be a way forward.”

Illinois Director of Agriculture Bob Flider praised teamwork between ag leaders and politicians in dealing with challenges facing the state last year. A record drought devastated crops in many fields and dramatically lowered river levels.

“Gov. (Pat) Quinn declared all 102 counties disaster area,” Flider said. “More important is what we did after that. We worked with (the Federal Drug Administration) to certify corn that had aflatoxin could be blended effectively and used. That helped us ensure that because of the lower productivity we could make our corn go further.

“There were a number of issues where the community came together. Gov. Quinn and our congressional delegation worked with the White House to expedite the Corps of Engineers’ schedule. There are so many examples of how we’re working together. We recognize that agriculture is our No. 1 industry.”

Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon praised a program in which farmers markets received assistance through a federal grant for the purchase of machines used for accepting electronic payments.

“Now there are more farmers markets across the state that have these machines where you can use your credit, debit or Link card to get fresh local food,” she said.

“That’s more money staying in Illinois, more Illinoisans eating healthy food. And that’s all paid for by the federal government, so we really like that.”

Among other speakers was veteran racecar driver Kenny Wallace, who drives for American Ethanol, a joint venture between the National Corn Growers Association and Growth Energy. Quinn also briefly addressed hundreds of FFA students gathered at the Capitol.