IDOA director shares challenges

John Sullivan addresses the Illinois Agricultural Legislative Roundtable Wednesday in Bloomington. (Photo by Catrina Rawson)

Illinois Agriculture Director John Sullivan faced challenges since his first day on the job. Slightly less than a year later, more challenges appear on the 2020 horizon, he reported to the Illinois Agricultural Legislative Roundtable Wednesday at the Illinois Farm Bureau office in Bloomington.

Sullivan recapped his first year and shared his agency’s priorities with leaders of state agriculture, commodity and agribusiness organizations joined by university administrators and researchers, state and federal agency representatives and legislative staff.

Securing funding in a new state budget will be important, especially with some of the issues before Illinois agriculture and the Illinois Department of Agriculture’s (IDOA) expanding responsibilities. Jennifer Tirey, executive director for the Illinois Pork Producers Association, asked Sullivan’s plans to fund animal disease prevention. The director acknowledged IDOA’s animal health and welfare division has been underfunded, and he has discussed funding work to prevent contagious disease outbreaks with State Veterinarian Dr. Mark Ernst and the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget.

“It’s all GRF (general revenue funding) money, and it’s a challenge to get those dollars,” Sullivan said. “I need you to talk to your legislators — your state representatives and senators. It can’t wait; you need to do it now.”

Sullivan also noted his agency took on additional responsibilities last year with licensing and oversight of industrial hemp production and processing. That came on top of licensing medicinal marijuana production facilities, and as of Jan. 1, offering licenses for craft growing, transporting and infusing cannabis for adult use. IDOA’s Bureau of Medicinal Plants needs “a lot more staff,” he noted.

After his presentation, Sullivan told FarmWeek his agency submitted a preliminary budget as requested by the Pritzker administration and the Office of Management and Budget. Per another request, IDOA also submitted a budget if it needed to take cuts. Sullivan declined to give the specific percentage of cuts because he didn’t know if that was public knowledge.

The ag director highlighted the need for broadband expansion across the state, using his own need to renew a state license through an online class as an example. Sullivan joked he wasn’t able to complete the work at his home because his family doesn’t have internet access. The ag director went to his local library and used its internet service. He pointed to $420 million for broadband expansion secured by Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the General Assembly in 2019. “That’s phenomenal,” Sullivan said, adding Missouri provided $5 million for broadband expansion last year.

“These are things I need help to push these initiatives,” Sullivan told the roomful of ag leaders.

And the ag director, a longtime state senator, reminded his audience “the dynamic General Assembly is changing.” He pointed to state Rep. Sonya Harper, a Democrat from the south side of Chicago and chair of the House Agriculture and Conservation Committee. Harper has a good relationship with IDOA, Sullivan reported.

“We want to be sure we educate individuals who are farther from the farm,” Sullivan said. “We can put blinders on and pretend we don’t know what is going on or we can engage. I want to engage.”