Adopt-A-Legislator® Program Creates Partners for Progress
For many Illinois farmers, acting as an advocate and sharing information about farming and food ranks just as important as taking care of the crops growing in their fields or livestock roaming their farms. This sharing applies not only to children, who are often three generations removed from the farm, or their parents, but those in a position of authority as well – people with a key voice in creating laws and making progress in Illinois.
To help address the issues facing agriculture and give farmers a louder voice, Illinois Farm Bureau developed the Adopt-A-Legislator® Program in 2001 with the intent of forming long-term relationships between rural farmers and urban legislators.
“Whiteside County was searching for ways we could make a difference, and we were aware that the state (Farm Bureau) had started this legislator program,” says Don Temple, row crop farmer and president of the Whiteside County Farm Bureau. “We thought it would be a good opportunity for us to learn how the legislators view their part of the world from the city, and for them to see where their food is coming from and ask questions. Any question is on the table.”
Whiteside County “adopted” Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch, the Illinois 7th District state representative, meaning Welch has met with farmers and toured farms in the county and discussed major issues with Whiteside County farmers. He has been in government for 18 years, but admits he didn’t know much about agriculture before joining the program.
“I didn’t know anything about it prior to becoming a legislator, so everything I’ve learned about agriculture has been through my relationship with the program,” Welch says. “Just to know where agriculture stands with the Illinois economy is critical for me as a legislator. I didn’t know that soybeans and pork and corn and pumpkins are major commodities produced in our state, and I know a number of my constituents didn’t either.”
The program works both ways. It allows farmers to travel to cities and suburbs, touring schools and parks in the legislators’ district to better understand views surrounding issues in those environments as well.
“When Rep. Welch came out to Whiteside County, we tried to find common ground where we had similar needs,” Temple says. “Sometimes, farmers think everyone in the Chicago area is working against us, and that’s not necessarily the case. We do have similar problems and we need to work toward solutions together.”
Welch agrees, noting the importance for all types of constituent groups to understand each other and various points of view.
“The farming industry is so important because of the role that agriculture plays in the overall health of our state’s economy,” he says. “If we don’t let farmers succeed, our state won’t succeed. It’s important for people like me from Chicago who don’t know that understand that.”
Currently, about 72 urban legislators have been “adopted” by county Farm Bureaus across Illinois through the program. In Cook County, almost every legislator has an “adopted” farmer.
The relationships formed through the program not only support Illinois’ agricultural health, but also give farmers a larger platform to voice concerns.
“The bottom line is we’re the biggest industry in Illinois, but we have the smallest voice at the legislative level,” Temple says. “When there are issues that are important to us, it helps that the legislator understands. Through the program, we’ve become comfortable talking to Rep. Welch and he feels comfortable reaching out and visiting us with his constituents as well.”