Hats Off to Illinois Farmers Hats Off to Illinois Farmers

Hats Off to Farmers

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Grandpa once had this amazing wall of farm hats in his home office. He hung baseball-type caps like wallpaper from the desktops to the ceiling, until Grandma learned they sheltered termites that had ruined the office walls.

I haven’t seen them since their placement in storage, but I vividly remember the livestock-related hats, their logos and names of feed mills. They tended to be the ones with the flip-down, fuzzy ear coverings for those farmers who brave the cold to care for their pigs and cows.

Grandpa’s hat collection says a lot of about farm history, agribusinesses and their tradition of free hats, and about livestock. Truth is, lots of farmers wear farm hats. But farmers wearing hats with logos of livestock feed companies are fewer these days.

If you haven’t been down a secondary road in 25 years, or maybe have never been on one made of gravel or unstriped blacktop, you’ll be surprised to learn how few farms raise livestock. In fact, not even half of Illinois farms do. Beef cattle can be found on 23 percent of Illinois farms, primarily in the northwest, western and southern parts of Illinois, where some hillier land is better suited for pasture than growing crops. Pigs, dairy cattle and chickens are found on fewer farms yet.

Most children’s picture books – at least the romanticized kind where every farm has a few cows, muddy pigs and big red barns – are generally as outdated as eight-track tapes. When these audio relics were popular, about seven in 10 farms raised pigs and cows in my gently rolling western part of the state. Today, cattle are on fewer than four in 10 farms in my area. Fewer than one in 10 farms has pigs.

The Illinois livestock industry is shrinking while the industry has grown nationwide. Though the number of farms has declined over the years, the quantity of livestock and number of farms raising them has declined more rapidly.

The state’s livestock farmers face increasing regulations, foreign competition and a growing not-in-my-backyard mentality. Economics of scale, profitability, industry integration and farm lifestyle also contribute to the change.

Illinois’ shrinking livestock industry has been visible for years. Most woven-wire fences that used to bind almost every rural property have been removed or fallen into disrepair because they serve no need to contain livestock. Many old concrete-floored open lots and livestock shelters, including barns and open-front buildings, have become storage spaces or parking lots for machinery. The numbers of veterinarians and feed mills have declined and now serve large territories. Some previous pastures instead grow corn and soybeans.

The farmers who still wear the livestock hats are passionate, motivated business people who have made investments in facilities and technology, increased efficiencies, and developed marketing plans. They are significant to the family farmers who choose to focus on growing the state’s major crops. Livestock farmers are the No. 1 customer of corn and soybeans, which are primary feed ingredients.

Hats off to them.

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