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Illinois Department of Agriculture director talks accomplishments so far, goals for next 4 years

Jerry Costello, director of the Illinois Department of Agriculture, is seen in this file photo from the 2022 Illinois State Fair in Springfield.
Tim Alexander
Jerry Costello, director of the Illinois Department of Agriculture, is seen in this file photo taken at the 2022 Illinois State Fair in Springfield.

In an extended interview with WCBU-WGLT, Illinois Agriculture Director Jerry Costello II discussed successes achieved in the space of agriculture during Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker’s first term, along with Costello’s goals for his next four years at the helm of the Illinois Department of Agriculture (IDOA).

“There are so many things that the Agriculture Department does that I don’t think people understand,” said Costello, 53, who grew up on the Franklin County row crop and beef cattle farm where his family still resides. “It’s a very expansive department that is about 85% regulatory.”

After graduating from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Costello joined the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division. Following his military service in Iraq, Costello returned to Illinois where he became a police officer.

A member of the Illinois General Assembly representing the 116th District from 2011-2019 and chairman of the House Ag and Conservation Committee for more than five years, Costello also served as chief of law enforcement for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. He took over as IDOA director in February of 2020 following the resignation of John Sullivan.

Under Costello’s guidance, the department has swelled from around 300 employees to around 360, buoyed by the burgeoning adult-use cannabis industry in Illinois. Costello, who in January was appointed to a second term as IDOA director, pointed to a number of accomplishments achieved by the ag department during Pritzker’s first term. Top 10 highlights included:

● In fiscal year 2022, more than $102.6 million in actual and projected sales were generated for Illinois agricultural companies as a result of direct buyer/seller introductions at in-person events initiated by the IDOA marketing department.

● Increased employment in Illinois’ cannabis production industry to nearly 5,000 people.

● Advanced the Farm Family Resource Initiative (FFRI), allowing for expansion of farmer stress-related mental health initiatives from a six-county pilot program to a statewide program connecting farmers with mental health resources and providers.

● Initiated the signing of a letter of intent with Taiwan committing to the sale of over $2 billion of Illinois soybeans and $600 million of Illinois corn over the next two years.

● Increased the number of FFA students in Illinois from 23,000 members to nearly 37,000 members; waived FFA membership fees for all Illinois students.

● Capital projects totaling around $58 million on the Illinois State Fairgrounds continued, including improvements to the Multi-Purpose Arena, 8th Street, Reisch Pavilion and building and barn roofs. Repairs also were initiated at the DuQuoin State Fairgrounds.

● Spurred record apiary growth in Illinois, with more than 650 new beekeepers registering in 2022.

● Implemented new pesticide-related rules, making Illinois one of the most stringent in the nation on the application of the pesticide Dicamba.

● Established new single-year attendance records at both the Illinois State Fair (636,000) and DuQuoin State Fair (171,000).

● Provided financial assistance for cover crop adoption through the Fall Covers for Spring Savings program. To date, over 300,000 acres are enrolled in the program.

Costello noted he takes great pride in the state’s cover crop program that pays producers a $5 per acre crop insurance incentive to grow overwintering, non-revenue producing (for the most part) crops or grasses that can bind fall-applied fertilizers such as anhydrous ammonia into soils, helping to prevent or decrease field nutrient runoff.

“This is an area where the agricultural community and the environmental community come together and meet for the common good. Cover crops help us with (the Illinois) Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy so we don’t get topsoil running off like you would in a fallow field, and the roots of these crops help fields stay aerated. Cover crops also capture carbon, so there are just numerous good scenarios that occur,” Costello said.

He’s also proud of Illinois’ establishment as an “affiliation” state for FFA, a designation that occurred when the General Assembly voted to appropriate $550,000 to cover FFA dues for all Illinois high school-aged children.

“From a technology standpoint agriculture has changed in so many ways. If we’re going to ensure that our number-one industry in this state keeps moving forward and keeps progressing, we’ve got to make sure that our youth are involved and engaged,” said Costello, whose grandfather was an FFA advisor. “I can think of no better way than through FFA.”

Looking forward, Costello vowed to work to ensure the FFA fees appropriation, which was approved in 2022, becomes a recurring line item in the state budget. He also said he’s looking forward to continuing Pritzker’s agenda for agriculture in the state of Illinois during the next four years.

Costello also defined some of his personal goals for his time remaining in the IDOA director’s seat: “One thing that’s important to me is growth in non-traditional agriculture. If you look at the growth in urban agriculture in the state of Illinois, if you look at addressing and affecting food deserts in food-insecure communities, that’s something that’s very, very important to me. A lot of that is connecting consumers with producers and making sure that the access is there,” he said.

“I would also say that at the end of the day, making sure that we’re maximizing state dollars and going after those federal matches that are out there-- I can’t tell you how important that is to the state of Illinois and to agriculture in this state. A lot of times those are two or three-to-one matches, to make sure you’re capitalizing on every opportunity that’s out there.”

In a state news release touting the recent accomplishments of the IDOA, Illinois Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton said the future of agriculture in the state is looking bright.

“Thank you to the Department of Agriculture that provides resources and support to the skilled farmers, producers, transporters, and workers who make this possible," said Stratton." The amazing accomplishments and growth we saw this year will provide momentum for increased productivity and entrepreneurship in 2023 and beyond."

Tim Alexander is a correspondent for WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.