How agriculture and conservation help the region thrive

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I grew up in southwest Michigan, surrounded by farms. In elementary school, we took annual field trips to Nye’s Apple Barn to pick apples and watch them being squeezed into juice. Now, I enjoy taking my kids back there to spend time with my family — it’s one of my favorite places.

That’s one of the reasons I was excited to participate last week in the Dialogues on the Future of Food, Farming, and Conservation, hosted by two organizations collaborating for the first time: Farm Foundation and Openlands.

As I shared at the event, here are four key insights to keep in mind as we work together on supporting local food and farming, and open spaces and natural resources.

Collaborating helps us all achieve our common goals

Sustaining and preserving the region’s agricultural heritage and conservation lands is a critical goal, but we might have different ideas on how to get there.

We’re very familiar with this scenario at the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP). Our current plan, ON TO 2050, lays out our roadmap for a better future for the region. To bring this vision to life, we bring together different stakeholders to listen and learn from each other. And we hear people in communities across northeastern Illinois want similar things: jobs and good housing, safe and reliable transportation, and economic opportunity.

To reach common goals, we often have to have tough conversations on issues that people are passionate about. Collaboration isn’t always easy, but it’s necessary to work together and address the barriers that stand in the way of our shared success. After all, we all call the Chicago region home.

Protecting our natural resources is vital for progress

Illinois is a leader in agriculture, not only nationally but globally. We have some of the most productive agricultural soils in the world. A third of our region is farmland; our top crops are corn and soybeans. These goods are transported nationally and internationally, contributing to the region’s status as a major freight hub.

Northeastern Illinois also depends on its open spaces — those places everyone has grown to love during the COVID-19 pandemic. Located between hardwood forests and tallgrass prairies, with the many advantages of Lake Michigan, we have a landscape of diverse habitats, capable of supporting a range of plant and animal species. These ecosystems provide the region with a number of services, including flood control and water purification.

Protecting our assets must be a priority for us all, and while I want to recognize our progress, we need to do more. From 2001 to 2015, nearly 140,000 acres of agricultural and natural lands were developed — that’s roughly the size of the City of Chicago. Many of our region’s natural habitats, such as oak savannas, tallgrass prairies, sedge meadows, and fens, are at risk of disappearing. Meanwhile, the number of farms and acres of farmland have continued a long-term decline, with cascading effects on related industries.


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Building better food systems makes the region more resilient

As the pandemic has brought some additional challenges, we’ve seen the value of building systems that are more resilient. That’s good not only for the national economy, but for our local and regional economy too.

We have the agricultural ingenuity and natural resources to support ourselves locally. And when farmers use sustainable practices, the environmental benefits are great. They can expand our pollinator habit and improve soil health. Together with the benefits provided by our natural lands, we have better stormwater management and protection from extreme weather events.

Post-pandemic, we’ll continue to experience the effects of extreme weather. Changes in temperature and precipitation have a huge impact on the crop yields and profits of our region’s farms. We’ll need to adapt to new products and transportation routes. If we’re better at harnessing this ingenuity, and making our farming methods more diverse, we will have measures in place to handle disruptions to the food supply chain.

Growing local food is good for our local and regional economy

From a regional planning perspective, northeastern Illinois has a unique situation. Unlike in other parts of the state, farmland and cities here are directly connected to each other.

We have a huge consumer base for local foods in our region. Like many of you, I love going to the farmers market to buy fruits and veggies straight from the farm. We can build on this established trend, driven by people who live in the region and across the country. Three-quarters of Americans care that their food is grown locally.

There are many reasons a number of counties and municipalities in northeastern Illinois are pursuing local food policies, including protecting the rural character that some of our residents prefer and making our region more economically viable. Local food systems increase farm income and jobs — and circulate money within our region and state, rather than sending it elsewhere.

At times, agriculture and conservation seem to be at odds, but they each contribute to our quality of life and have the potential to be mutually beneficial. And we’re well positioned to take action on both.

In ON TO 2050, CMAP supports our region’s natural resources by setting goals for green infrastructure, the preservation of open spaces, infill development, and climate resilience.

As Farm Foundation and Openlands continue their partnership, I look forward to amplifying the solutions, lessons, and insights that come out of the dialogues. Because when we work together, we can create stronger systems that work better for everyone.