I had a meeting in downtown Chicago this week. Now, I think there are about a dozen different ways to get from Peoria to Chicago. My preferred route is to take IL-116 through Germantown Hills, Metamora, Roanoke and parts east until I get to I-55. It might be a slightly longer trip than other ways, but it takes me through some of our beautiful farmland. I’m a city kid – born and raised in Los Angeles – so I’m used to a scenery that never changes. What I love about driving through our rural areas is that the landscape differs with the seasons. Every trip is different; you can see the progress of the corn as the weeks roll by. (One of the first phrases my wife taught me was that corn should be “knee high by the 4th of July.”)
On my trip home this week, I really paid attention to the harvest. Even as the sun dipped beyond the horizon, farmers and their equipment were hard at work getting the crops out. The scene got me thinking about the importance of agriculture to our region. When you live in the city, even a city like Peoria that is surrounded by thousands of acres of farmland, you can pretty quickly forget one of the jewels of this area. In fact, I imagine that most of the readership of this newsletter takes agriculture for granted. But agriculture has long been the foundation of our community. This area has always been valuable to natives and immigrants for its incredibly fertile soil. The proximity of this bounty to the Illinois River allowed easy access to markets beyond the immediate region. And it was the rich combination of available grain and clean water that made Peoria the whiskey distilling capital of the world.
In our five counties, over 4500 people are employed in farming occupations. That is 14% higher than the national average. The average farm wage in our region is also nearly 10% higher than other areas. But working farms are just half of the story. Lots of places grow stuff; in Greater Peoria we take it the next level. Peoria is home to the largest of only four USDA agricultural laboratories in the United States, where every day about 200 scientists are working to improve agricultural production, food safety and public health. In Tremont, Precision Planting (recently acquired by agricultural giant AGCO) is developing innovative farming solutions that improve the efficiency of planting and harvesting. In Mason City, Monsanto is producing seeds. In Morton, Nestle’s Libby’s plant is canning pumpkin for the rest of the world. Agriculture is even alive in the startup world: local startup Digital Dipstick was recently awarded a $200,000+ grant from the National Science Foundation to develop its technology to help prevent engine failure in farm equipment.
Over the next few weeks as you watch the end of the harvest, think about how lucky we are – whether we live in the city or country – to be blessed with such rich soil and the people who find ways of utilizing that soil. Our region depends on it.
– Chris Setti
CEO, Greater Peoria EDC