2022 Legislative Tours: Legislators in the Wild

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In June 2019, I wrote a blog post introducing readers to one of the Illinois Environmental Council’s most successful programs, legislative tours. Since then, we’ve conducted dozens of informative “tours” with legislators and local officials, taking them out of their office buildings and into the natural areas we need their help to protect.

By: Lindsay Keeney, Conservation Director

It’s all part of our long-term power building strategy. To educate lawmakers on the importance of agriculture and natural resource conservation practices, we connect them with experiences that demonstrate the real-world impacts of their votes in the legislature. For example, we bring them to sustainable farms in their districts or to conservation areas where they get a first-hand look at the importance of conservation practices, soil health and nutrient pollution reduction.

Time and time again, we’ve seen just how powerful these educational opportunities are for decision makers. In fact, participants often reminisce about the time we shared on location and how the experience shaped the way they approached a particular vote or policy decision.

They also happen to be pretty fun! And since our legislative tours aren’t open to the public, I’m excited to share with you a peek behind the scenes during some of our more recent tour stops so that you can get a better idea of what we’re doing to grow the number of environmental champions in the Illinois General Assembly!

Adam’s Wildlife Sanctuary – May 23rd, 2022

Illinois State Senator Doris Turner and IEC Conservation Director Lindsay Keeney went birdwatching at Illinois Audubon Society‘s Adams Wildlife Sanctuary. In between scanning the trees for birds, the group discussed the importance of conservation land trusts, public-private partnerships, conservation stewardship funding, Illinois Bird Day and the vital role of agency funding in advancing conservation efforts across the state. They also talked about the many opportunities available for Illinois’ to contribute to the America the Beautiful campaign.

Southern Illinois Tour (Lake Kinkaid, Scratch Brewery, Glaciers End Farm) – August 31st to September 1st, 2022

IEC took a trip to Southern Illinois joined by partners from; Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Illinois NRCS, The Nature Conservancy, the local U.S. Forest Service and the local Kinkaid Reed’s Creek Conservancy District. We spent part of the day on a pontoon in Kinkaid Lake showing legislators stewardship projects made possible by the public-private partnerships in the area. Attendees learned about the bank stabilization work going on at Kinkaid Lake to limit erosion over time and discussed cross-boundary prescribed fire that is actively being applied within the watershed on private, state, and federal land. Folks also chatted amongst themselves on how policy impacts funding for the extremely important conservation and stewardship work in areas like this. We ended the trip in fellowship at Scratch Brewery enjoying delicious local food and drinks made from ingredients straight from the Shawnee National Forest. 

Funk’s Grove – September 12th, 2022

State Senator Sally Turner and Bill Hauter, candidate for State Representative, joined us at Funks Grove Heritage Fruits & Grains to learn about the opportunities and challenges facing small farms and local food systems.

Farmer Jeff Hake toured us around the 11-acre farm, sharing more about their organically grown grains, orchard, and pollinator plots, as well as how they forage for wild paw paws, ramps, and other ingredients in the surrounding forest. They then turn these raw grains and fruits into delicious fruit leather, flour, popcorn, and pancake mixes.

Jeff shared his excitement for the new Farm-Fed Co-op and how this project will help aggregate and distribute products from farmers all across the region to meet the needs of schools and institutions. He also shared the challenges that Farm-Fed faces– a lack of state support, funding, and technical assistance to support critical local food infrastructure projects. Other states have grants, loans, and support programs, but Illinois offers very little to meet the needs of local food and farm infrastructure.

Farmer Kelly Lay of Meadow Lane Farm experiences a related issue. Kelly makes amazing jams, cocktail syrups, pickled peppers, and other delicious cottage food products. She worked hard with IEC affiliate organization, Illinois Stewardship Alliance, to reform cottage food laws, and now her business is booming. Customers love her unique products!  But scaling up to a commercial kitchen is a challenge. Regulations and high fees in her county make it difficult to share a commercial kitchen, and buying or building one costs even more. Shared kitchens and commercial kitchens are critical pieces of local food infrastructure needed to grow small food and farm businesses in Illinois. The tour ended with delicious taste-testing of honey from the comb, popcorn, fruit leather, peppers, jam, and syrup! All the best flavors that Central Illinois has to offer!

Old Capitol Farmers Market – September 21st, 2022

State Rep Sue Scherer joined us at the Old Capitol Farmers Market presented by HSHS St. John’s with market manager Kayla Graven to talk about how farmers markets grow businesses, keep food dollars in local economies, make fresh food available to our most vulnerable populations, support farmers, and create stronger communities. We also talked about how policy plays a direct role in helping farms and farmers markets thrive.

Over the past two years, ISA and IEC have worked to improve cottage food laws, increase funding to help SNAP customers shop at farmers markets, and streamline regulations around meat, eggs, and dairy. This year at the OCFM, more SNAP customers are shopping at their market than ever before— putting more federal SNAP dollars into the pockets of local farms instead of big box stores (and providing greater access to healthy fruits and veg!) The OCFM is on track to do more than $40,000 in SNAP sales.

Additionally, more cottage food businesses have launched, and these businesses are scaling up into brick and mortar stores that are filling downtown storefronts. At least 4 cottage food businesses that got their start at the OCFM have now grown into brick-and-mortar locations. The OCFM regularly supports more than 80 small farms and food businesses, attracts more than 5,000 shoppers every Saturday and Wednesday, increases foot traffic to surrounding small businesses, and provides more than 2500 lbs of fresh food to local food pantries. Small legislative changes can make a big impact and do even more to help farms and farmers markets across the state keep growing the local economy.

Old Capitol Farmers Market – September 28th, 2022

Senator Doris Turner joined us at the Old Capitol Farmers Market presented by HSHS St. John’s with market manager Kayla Graven to talk about how farmers markets grow businesses, keep food dollars in local economies, make fresh food available to our most vulnerable populations, support farmers, and create stronger communities. We also talked about how policy plays a direct role in helping farms and farmers markets thrive. Senator Turner loved hearing about how the market serves as an incubator for local businesses, many of which are now brick-and-mortar establishments in Springfield. We also detailed the unbelievable benefits of having SNAP at the market to double the impact of the state-funded SNAP at the market program by getting food to families and need and providing farmers fair compensation for their work.

Sola Gratia Farm Tour – September 29th, 2022

Thank you to State Senator Scott Bennett for joining us with farmers at Sola Gratia Farm to talk about how farms like theirs are feeding the community, tackling food insecurity, providing jobs, and working to get more fresh food into schools– and how state policy can support their work!

Farmers Traci and John discussed how policy like the Healthy Food Incentives Fund, which provides $500,000 in state funding to help SNAP customers shop at farmers markets– has already had an impact on their farm and community. They’ve seen huge increases in SNAP sales thanks in part to that policy, which means a better bottom line for their farm, more healthy food for SNAP customers, and more federal dollars spent locally instead of with big box stores headquartered out of state.

Likewise– they’re excited about the passage of the Better School Lunches Act this past Spring, which removes the requirement that certain schools must accept the lowest price bid on food service agency contracts. Sola Gratia has been working with the Urbana School District on a number of farm-to-school initiatives, and the passage of the Better School Lunches will make it easier for them to get their fresh produce onto the plates of school children in the district while providing school children with higher quality food and reinvesting school food dollars with local farms.

Henry’s Farm – October 13th, 2022

State Senator Dave Koehler joined the Illinois Stewardship Alliance and The Illinois Environmental Council at the picturesque Henry’s Farm outside of Peoria.

Farmers Henry and Terra Brockman toured us around their 15-acre regenerative farm, shared stories about how climate change has impacted their land, how they’ve seen success with the cottage food law, and the need to help farmers diversify Illinois agriculture.

We talked with Senator Koehler about finding ways to incentivize climate-smart agriculture so that farmers can help be the solution while also working to feed their families and communities.

Skokie Lagoons – October 13th, 2022

State Representative Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz, State Senator Laura Fine, and Illinois 16th district Representative-Elect Kevin Olickal, joined us for a picturesque autumn stroll through Skokie Lagoons in northern Cook County.

This Lagoon is one of the numerous greenspaces overseen by the Forest Preserves of Cook County, which offered our conservation team the perfect opportunity to teach legislators about the Vote Yes referendum, which recently passed, securing funding to the Forest Preserves for generations to come. 

Lechowicz Woods – October 14th, 2022

State Representative Lindsey LaPointe joined IEC’s Chicagoland conservation staff to hike through Lechowicz Woods on Chicago’s Northwest side. The woodland is dominated by majestic ancient bur oaks and filled with wild hyacinth in the spring. 

Tucked away between the Jefferson Park & Lincolnwood neighborhoods, these woods are just one of the over 500 parks and greenspaces located within the city limits.

Rollins Savanna – August 24th, 2022

Representative-Elect Laura Faver Dias and soon to be Senator-Elect Mary Edly-Allen joined IEC’s legislative team for a tour of Rollins Savanna, part of Lake County Forest Preserves impressive inventory of properties. We got the chance to see their native seed nursery and do a quick hike out to a wetland, where we were greeted by an egret, a mallard, and a plethora of native flora which were in full bloom.

Caldwell Woods – October 18, 2022

Representative Mike Kelly joined IEC’s Jennifer Walling and Sergio Vargas for a brisk tour of Caldwell Woods, which boasts amazing biodiversity that offers appreciation during any season. 

With close access to the popular North Branch Trail, it’s no surprise that this location has received countless praise, and allows guests to bike or walk through the flatwoods, floodplain forests, open savanna, and oak woodlands.

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