“Don’t throw sand”

When I was a youngster, around age 6, I was fortunate enough to have a father who constructed a great sandbox for me and my siblings to play in. That sandbox was perfectly square… perfectly solid… perfectly filled with soft sand. What a wonderful place for kids (and cats) to enjoy. Thank you, Dad!

I remember taking my farm toys -tractors, wagons, and other replica farm implements - out to the sandbox. Mom provided popcorn seeds as the farm commodity to plant, cultivate, harvest, and handle in the sand box.  I spent many hours “farming” that make believe sand farm… Plowing, planting, growing, and harvesting.

I did not always view my younger siblings as “assets” on my make-believe farm in that sandbox. My sister and brothers had this habit of digging potholes in my best sand cornfields. They didn’t seem to know how to plow straight sand rows. They seem to enjoy playing “Jolly Green Giant” by walking through the sand fields and destroying my make-believe crops.  They could devastate a crop in seconds.

I wish that I took all of this in stride…that it was okay to destroy my sandbox farm (note how possessive!). I wish I was a “kind and benevolent” brother, but alas, patience was not my middle name. Perhaps “throwing sand with fury and spite” should have been my middle name as I sought revenge for the destruction of my farming operation (again with the possessiveness!).

A handful of thrown sand may not endanger one’s life but it certainly can be uncomfortable lodged in the hair, less than tasty in the mouth and apparently quite irritable in the eyes.  Unfortunately, my sister and brothers were quite adept at “return fire” as a sand storm would erupt. My parents had to lay down the law that thou shall not throw sand when playing in the sandbox!

The “sandstorm” is sometimes the way I feel when I think about today’s agriculture and the many groups, entities, and styles that make up farm production in the United States.  Today, there many “brother and sister” farm personalities playing in the sandbox that we call Agriculture. Illinois sandbox players include corn and soybean farmers, vegetable farmers, equine farmers, greenhouse farmers, bee/honey farmers, turf farmers, confinement livestock farmers, hay/straw farmers, orchard and fruit farmers, urban vertical farmers, fiber and pasture livestock farmers, etc.

These farmers have important roles locally in the agricultural world. Shockingly, sometimes these farmers and the representative farm groups do not always agree with one another on various aspects of farming: the use of farm land, marketing techniques, farm production styles, technology and labor, value added processing, health and welfare, pricing, and so much more.

Disagreement is fine and can be positive. However, it is sometimes concerning when agriculture begins throwing sand in the sandbox at one another. It may not endanger a particular type of farming but the thrown sand certainly can be uncomfortable, creating plenty of bad feelings and irritation.  And how does the rest of the world see agriculture when the sand is flying?

That’s why I am fascinated by the recent release of the FARM (Food and Agriculture RoadMap) Illinois plan and proposal. Farm groups and agriculture of all types came together to propose an ambitious, forward thinking plan designed to make sure all of agriculture is an important part of Illinois’ and the Chicago area’s future. FARM Illinois proposes to use our greatest farming assets of Illinois and the Chicagoland region (Farmers, Land, Transportation, Workforce, Markets, History, etc) to ensure sustained and innovative statewide leadership for the betterment of the entire food and agricultural system. See the related article in this issue of the Cooperator for the key areas of focus contained in the FARM Illinois plan.

I attended two Farm Illinois briefings in July and August in which the plan was rolled out and discussed by the various leaders involved in its creation. There were all farm types and groups in attendance at these events…some of whom have been known to “throw sand” at one another in the past (Hey, I’ve already confessed my sand throwing past).  It was great seeing all types of farm leaders interacting and excited about the potential.

I will be interested in watching the evolution of FARM Illinois and seeing if involved leaders can maintain focus on the big picture of making Illinois “THE Place for Agriculture in the entire World.  There will be moments of disagreement when the easy thing to do will be “to pick up a handful of sand” and throw it in the Illinois agriculture sandbox… Obviously, Farm Illinois doesn’t have parents to make a rule “thou shall not throw sand when playing in the sandbox”! FARM Illinois is such a great concept and I sincerely hope it works.