SPRINGFIELD – After 16 years in the Illinois General Assembly, former state Sen. John Sullivan is settling into his new role in state government, that of acting director of the Illinois Department of Agriculture.
Sullivan was tapped by Gov. J.B. Pritzker to head the state’s agriculture agency, succeeding the former director, Raymond Poe. Sullivan also served on the transition team with a group of other officials focusing on agriculture and rural development.
Speaking to reporters during a news conference at the agency’s headquarters Monday, Sullivan said that experience on the transition team taught him about the diversity of agricultural interests in the state.
“When I talk about the diversity, we had folks representing urban ag, we had folks obviously from all the different commodity groups, we had rural development folks, we had economic development folks,” Sullivan said. “And everybody, when we made our introductions, we laid out what our goals were for the group, everybody put their own issues aside and tried to move forward with a plan that we can present to the governor that would improve agriculture, and we expanded it to not only include agriculture but rural development.”
Sullivan, a Rushville Democrat who represented the 47th Senate District from 2003 to 2017, is no stranger to the agriculture community in Illinois. He and his family have operated a family farm in west-central Illinois, and he has been involved in a family-owned auction and real estate business.
Now as he prepares to lead a state agency charged with regulating and promoting the state’s agriculture industry, Sullivan said three major issues have already risen to the surface.
“I’d say number one, broadband out in the rural areas of the state was just an issue that came up over and over and over again,” Sullivan said. “I can speak to that from our own home and family location as well as our own business. Trying to get high-speed internet is very frustrating out in the rural areas of the state, and it is absolutely a hindrance to trying to do business.”
“Other areas, hemp was certainly on everybody’s radar,” Sullivan continued, referring to the state’s recent action to legalize the production of industrial hemp. “I certainly feel like there’s going to be a lot of opportunities there.”
“I’d say the third area would be ag education,” he continued. “We had a lot of folks from the education field that were on our panel. Certainly, offering programs in-person or online, and that gets back to the high-speed internet.”
Sullivan also responded to questions about the overall state of agricultural production today, both in Illinois and nationally, especially in light of new trade tensions between the United States and China.
“We spent literally decades and decades building those trade relationships with China and other countries, and to have, so to speak, the rug pulled out from under us with regard to trade,” Sullivan said, “we’re going to have to turn around and redevelop and rebuild the trust with those other countries and those organizations. “
Sullivan also said the recently passed federal Farm Bill should provide producers with a degree of regulatory certainty for the next few years, allowing them to make planting and investment decisions. But he said all that could change if there is another partial shutdown of the federal government like the month-long shutdown that just ended last week.
During that shutdown, he said, state agriculture officials were forced to step in and fill the void of federal workers to make sure health and safety inspections were still being conducted at slaughterhouses and meat processing plants.
“In the big picture, if there’s another shutdown, we actually had some discussions (Monday) morning about coming up with some ways that we can make sure it does not impact farmers and producers here in the state,” Sullivan said.
The state’s agriculture industry also stands to be affected by Gov. Pritzker’s vow to put a renewed focus on environmental protection and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in Illinois.
“Last week, the department put on a program with producers around the state that were trying to reduce soil erosion,” Sullivan said. “We’re trying to reduce nutrient runoff, trying to conserve resources. I think that’s a small step that we as a department can take.”
Last week, Pritzker announced that his administration was joining the U.S. Climate Alliance, a bipartisan group of states that have vowed individually to pursue the goals of greenhouse gas reductions outlined in the 2016 international pact known as the Paris Agreement, despite President Donald Trump’s announced plan to pull out of that agreement.
And while Pritzker’s comments at the time focused mainly on carbon emissions from the state’s power plants, Sullivan acknowledged Monday that the state’s livestock industry, also another major source of greenhouse gas emissions, could be asked to take part in the effort.
“I think we’re obviously open to looking at that as well,” he said. “I can’t really speak to it specifically at the moment, but yeah, absolutely we’ll take a look at it.”
During his news conference, Pritzker dropped in with a surprise announcement of an $800,000 contribution to the state fair with money raised from his inaugural ball earlier this month. The money is expected to be used to help fund a backlog of deferred maintenance projects at the fairgrounds.
Sullivan also acknowledged that the Department of Agriculture faces a number of challenges, most notably its lack of staffing. Due to recent budget and staffing cuts, he said the agency is down to about 300 to 325 employees, a drop from its previous head count of about 600.
Sullivan will continue to lead the agriculture agency in an acting capacity pending his confirmation by the Illinois Senate.