While most of us can’t imagine going one day or even one hour without access to high-speed internet, internet options in rural areas are often few and far between.
“How can farmers run their small business without high-speed internet service? We have internet in rural areas, but it’s not adequate to run today’s technology,” Illinois Department of Agriculture Director John Sullivan said. Sullivan was the keynote speaker during the Kankakee County Farm Bureau and Kankakee County Chamber of Commerce Legislative Reception Friday at the Kankakee Country Club.
Sullivan, who has been involved in agriculture his entire life, was a partner in his family’s real estate business and auction business for 20 years and served as an Illinois state senator representing the 47th Senate District from 2003-17. Sullivan was appointed IDA director by Gov. J.B. Pritzker and took office in January of this year.
After taking office, one of Sullivan’s top priorities was access to broadband internet service in rural areas.
Sullivan met with internet providers, farm bureau members and others with a vested interest in broadband internet service. Sullivan noted there are vast areas in Illinois that need internet service upgrades. To help provide greater service, the general assembly passed a capital bill, Connect Illinois, with $420 million for broadband service across Illinois. The program, endorsed by Pritzker, will provide $400 million for statewide broadband expansion and $20 million to the Illinois Century Network for schools, libraries, museums and local government entities.
Sullivan also discussed industrial hemp and Illinois’ policies. The 2018 Farm Bill changed federal policy regarding industrial hemp, including the consideration of hemp as an agricultural product. While on the federal level the bill was changed, Illinois did not have rules and regulations in place.
When Sullivan took office, the IDA began working on a policy, rules and regulations in relation to industrial hemp. Industrial hemp is grown for fiber to make clothes and products and also is grown for the production of CBD oil.
“On May 1, the state’s online application went live for farmers to apply to grow industrial hemp. We received 250 application in the first 24 hours,” Sullivan said. “To-date, we have requests totaling 22,000 acres.”
“I don’t know what the future holds for hemp. We can grow it in Illinois because of our soil. But what we do with it after it’s grown? Time will tell what the future of hemp is. But the potential of having another crop in the rotation is a good thing,” said Sullivan.
Federal and state legislators also were given the opportunity to discuss farm-related issues.
Bill Houlihan, representing U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin’s office, discussed the critical health workforce shortages. Recently introduced legislation, the Rural America Health Corps Act, would create a new program to build upon the existing National Health Service Corps program by providing new, dedicated student loan forgiveness funding for health care providers who serve in rural communities.
According to Houlihan, 20 percent of Americans live in rural communities, yet only 11 percent of physicians practice in rural settings. Across Illinois, 3.3 million people live in communities with shortages of doctors, 5 million people live in communities with shortages of mental health professionals and 2.3 million people live in communities with shortages of dentists.
The current NHSC program provides up to $50,000 annually to repay student loans for primary care doctors, dentists, behavioral health clinicians, nurse practitioners and physician assistants for two years of service in a health professional shortage area. It provides 3,100 new loan forgiveness awards each year — but only 30 percent of NHSC program participants serve in rural communities.
The Rural America Health Corps Act would authorize a new $25 million program to bolster the existing rural NHSC placements and would provide funding for up to five years — an increase from the current two-year forgiveness period to assist with recruitment and retention efforts.
U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly discussed the Feeding America through Farm Flexibility Act to increase the number of acres agricultural producers are authorized to grow fruits and vegetables, without a resulting reduction in the payment acres used to calculate price loss coverage and agriculture risk coverage payments.
The increases are permitted if the crops on the additional acres are grown for sale or donation in a “food desert,” or an area that has a poverty rate of at least 20 percent or an area with limited access to stores that provide a variety of fruits and vegetables.
She also co-sponsors the Beginning Agriculturalist Lifetime Employment Act to revise the limits for USDA’s conservation loan guarantee program. Ultimately, she said, the bill will encourage young farmers getting started.
“The chamber and farm bureau collaborate on the Voice of Business committee to provide opportunities for residents to connect with legislators,” said Emily Poff, KCCC executive director. “We are proud to collaborate on this initiative and feel it’s of utmost importance to provide our members with a platform to connect with legislators.”
Kankakee County Farm Bureau manager Chad Miller noted, “Agriculture is a key component of the business community in Kankakee County and we look forward to keeping our partnership strong for years to come.”