Here Come the Helpers

COVID-19 Brings out the Innovation in Illinois Agriculture

By Betsy Osman

The now famous advice from Mr. Fred Roger’ is to look for the helpers. “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news,” Rogers said to his television neighbors, “my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

And while the agricultural community has been feverishly posturing to meet unprecedented demands during the nation’s COVID-19 era, never has such an opportunity existed for farmers to answer the call to help. With the support of technological advancement, mind-bending science, shared vision casting, and an uncompromising commitment to collaboration, the Illinois ag community is showing up in big ways to say yes to the plea of neighbors and the nation.

These are the days to be helpers.

Pork Donations Fill Void

here come the helpersThe Illinois Pork Producers Association (IPPA) has stepped up its support of regional food banks in Illinois, getting oversupplied pork harvest to those most in need. So far in 2020, IPPA has donated 46,159 pounds of ground pork -- 20,000 pounds specifically when COVID-19 first hit. Since a few of the food banks reach outside of state lines, neighboring state pork associations have joined the helpers’ cavalry to further the reach.

The Indiana and Iowa Pork Producers Associations have equally matched Illinois Pork’s donation amount to their respective bordering food banks. ISA and the Illinois Corn Marketing Board have contributed to the program, reflecting the heart and concern shared by all farmers.

According to Jenny Jackson, IPPA director of communications, help hasn’t just included supply donation, it’s also been an effort in new levels of transparency, communication and accessibility. 

“We are sending emails two to three times a week to our producers letting them know about all of the changes in the industry,” says Jackson. “Social distancing due to COVID-19 has pushed us as an association to be even more present online and more immediately responsive.”

According to Jackson, the association has also converted their pork education materials to online friendly versions to ensure that pork is still relevant in virtual classrooms and in the home. Consumers and restaurants alike also benefit from their new #PorkToGo campaign.

Hand Sanitizer Protects Essential Ag Workers

here come the helpersISA recognized another critical need and teamed up with the Illinois Corn Marketing Board and GROWMARK Inc. to distribute hand sanitizer, a scarce commodity at the top of the pandemic, to ag retailers and equipment dealers throughout Illinois.

“As planting season was ramping up, the concern was real in farm country that ag retailers wouldn’t be able to stay open for business, and that would have drastically impacted our farmers’ ability to put the crop in,” says ISA Chief Executive Officer John Lumpe. “Together with the Illinois Corn Marketing Board, we were able to collaborate and address this important concern, and doors stayed open and planting progressed. In challenging seasons, you make lemonade out of lemons, and I’m proud of what the state grain commodity boards accomplished together.”

Hand sanitizer was made with corn-based ethanol at Marquis Energy in Hennepin, Illinois, the largest dry-mill ethanol facility in the world. It was also produced with glycerin from soybeans, a byproduct of biodiesel production, from Renewable Energy Group. Evergreen FS warehoused the product, while GROWMARK Energy and Logistics team members and Environmental Safety and Insurance Services members distributed the product. So far, the Illinois associations have purchased 1,100 cases at four gallons per case for a total of 4,400 gallons of hand sanitizer.

here come the helpers“This time of year, farmers need access to inputs, parts and the many services that agriculture retailers and dealers provide. So, doing their part to mitigate the threat of COVID-19 to ag businesses and producers is a priority that will benefit the entire industry,” says Lumpe.

ISA also partnered with the Chicago Park District to produce hand sanitizer for its workforce and Chicago first responders in an effort to assist urban neighbors as well.

Illinois Students Get Online Ag Lessons

Kevin Daugherty, Illinois Farm Bureau education director and the driving force behind “Ag in the Classroom,” describes the process of folding classroom presentation material into teachers’ e-learning curriculum. The ISA checkoff program helps fund the effort.

We’ve developed a daily lesson which teachers are able to upload and make available as part of their online lesson planning. These daily lessons include a learning component, children’s literature, and a fun, engaging element. To no one’s surprise, the ‘fun’ components are the most popular in each lesson,” says Daugherty. 

“I think conversations with kids about agriculture is especially timely during the pandemic. They gain a greater appreciation for the food chain, how their food is grown and gets delivered to us as consumers. They are living the lessons we work to deliver in a meaningful capacity,” he says.

Equipment Innovation Meets PPE Needs

John Deere, in collaboration with the UAW, Iowa Department of Homeland Security and Illinois Manufacturers’ Association, has been producing protective face shields at John Deere Seeding Group in Moline, Illinois. Deere employees initially produced 25,000 face shields to meet the immediate needs of healthcare workers in several of its U.S. manufacturing communities.

“Our manufacturing and supply management teams, along with our production and maintenance employees, the UAW, and our partners have worked tirelessly to ensure we could lend our support and protect our health-care workers during this crisis,” says John May, chief executive officer, Deere & Company. “By working closely with the communities where our employees live and work, we can help support the needs we’ve identified close to home and, as the project expands, address additional, urgent needs across the country.”

here come the helpersDeere has orders for more than 350,000 face shields, with plans to produce 400,000 total face shields. The company is using an open-source design from the University of Wisconsin-Madison for the project and leveraging expertise, skills and innovation of its employee base. Deere factory managers and other leaders in each location have been in constant communication with their respective healthcare providers. During these conversations, health-care professionals provided a list of the personal protective equipment (PPE) needed to support front-line healthcare workers.

“The hospitals and healthcare agencies in the communities where our employees work need PPE to protect their healthcare workers,” says Dan Bernick, manager for public relations at Deere & Company. “Since some of our factories are located in smaller towns, they may not be getting the required PPE that larger towns may get, and we are helping them with this critical need.

“John Deere teams have done an incredible job acquiring material to support this initiative, and employees have been highly engaged in this process by providing their manufacturing expertise, innovation and creativity,” he adds. “It has been an all-hands-on-deck approach, and it has been amazing to see our employees step up and take quick action to make this happen.”

As in all of these examples, the innovation made possible through Illinois agriculture and its many key players, is on full display. And Illinois soybean farmers can call themselves helpers.