A Publication of WTVP

As I write this, central Illinois farmers are out in the fields, planting the rows of corn, soybeans and wheat that blanket our region. This April has been kind to area farmers, unlike last year, when a wet spring left fields unplanted until late May and even into June. For them, so much depends on the weather.

It is for good reason that the Midwest is called the nation’s breadbasket. Agriculture has been a significant driver of the regional economy for many years—and continues to be, even as most of us no longer farm our own land. In 1790, farmers made up about 90 percent of the U.S. labor force. By 1850, that number stood at 64 percent, and by 1950, 12 percent. Today, it stands at less than one percent—and yet agriculture is more important now than ever before.

Not only are there billions of additional people to feed around the globe, society is asking more of agriculture than just putting food on the table. One need only examine the research initiatives taking place at our local Ag Lab—one of the region’s best-kept secrets—to see this in action. Whether ensuring a safe food supply, fighting childhood obesity or adapting crops for renewable energy needs, the research being conducted on University Street is addressing some of the most pressing national issues of our time.

For years, pennycress was regarded as an unsightly weed, but research that began at the Ag Lab several years ago has demonstrated that what was once seen as a nuisance could be an answer to our nation’s energy crisis. By establishing a production facility to develop next-generation renewable fuels, Biofuels Manufacturers of Illinois, in conjunction with Peoria NEXT and other collaborators, is at the forefront of efforts to turn these lab findings into real-world solutions.

And that kind of project is exactly what Peoria NEXT was intended to do—leverage the strengths of our region and grow jobs here at home that can’t be outsourced. We really can divert billions of dollars from the oil fields of the Middle East and put that money into the pockets of workers right here in Middle America.

For many, agriculture is synonymous with rural America, even as the archetype of the pastoral family farm has become more the exception than the rule. The health of our overall economy, both in central Illinois and across the Midwest, is tied to the health of our rural communities. How rural America adapts to the challenges of a 21st-century global economy will have profound implications for all of us.

There has been a lot of interest in recent years about how our food is grown, with an increasing emphasis on locally-grown foods. You may have picked up fresh vegetables at one of our growing number of farmers’ markets, or perhaps you have a subscription to a CSA farm. Community gardens are even bringing agriculture into the city, where children are amazed to eat food that was grown right down the street from their homes.

One thing is clear. Even if you’re not a farmer or don’t tend a garden, agriculture has a profound impact on your own life—and the health of the local economy. To all of our nation’s hard-working farmers, we owe you a debt of gratitude. iBi