Illinois is an agricultural state.
We all know that, right?
But did you also know that Illinois imports 90 percent of its food? This is according to an August 24, 2014 article in the Business section of the Chicago Tribune.
So what’s wrong with this picture? The hard truth is that most of Illinois is a monoculture of corn and soybeans, which goes to feed cattle in this country and abroad. We’re not a state of home gardeners feeding our families from our backyards. When I buy frozen edamame (whole soybeans) at my local supermarket, I see “Product of China” stamped on the bag. What’s wrong, indeed.
Wanting to know more about this, I “penned” an email to the Illinois Department of Agriculture (the source for the Tribune’s 90 percent figure), and asked how they came up with this number and what was included. Meat? Vegetables? Processed cheese? No reply from them or from the ag departments of Indiana and Wisconsin when I sent emails from their websites asking about their own food imports. The Wisconsin website, however, does tell us how much food it exports – $3.2 billion in 2013, which ranks 13th in the U.S. for agricultural exports. Its number one export is dairy products – no surprise there – and it’s the nation’s largest exporter of cranberries, but I bet you didn’t know that Wisconsin ranks second in the nation in bovine semen exports. (Try trotting this factoid out at your next cocktail party.)
Other illuminating statistics came to me via a locavore group in Vermont called Strolling of the Heifers. Executive Director Orly Munzing promptly answered my query whether there is any comprehensive data on food imports by various states and the answer is “no.” “We have looked for this in the past and there is no comprehensive state-by-state listing, or we would be using it in the Locavore Index,” he wrote (strollingoftheheifers.com/locavoreindex).
“Various states, but not all, have individually tried to estimate the percentage of food they import, as Illinois has done, but they use non-uniform data sources and estimation methods.” He noted, however, that there is precise data on imports to Hawaii (92 percent) because it’s based on port shipment data.
And in case you were wondering, the heifers (and lots of other animals) really do stroll down the streets of Brattleboro, Vt. every year, and the website photos prove it’s a sight to behold. This year’s event: June 6 at 10 a.m. sharp. The three-day weekend festivities include other choice events as well – goat Olympics anybody?
But if you can’t make it to Vermont this June for the Strolling of the Heifers Parade, do the next best thing and resolve (yes, it’s that time of year again) to grow more food in your garden. That 90 percent Illinois number is an embarrassment for a state that boasts some of the best soil on the planet. As for those murky state-by-state import figures that need to be compiled and compared, there must be a Ph.D. dissertation lurking in there somewhere. Any takers?