September 26, 2023

Harvesting the Economy

As I’m sure I have shared before, I’m a city kid. While California is home to a large agricultural industry, you had to get pretty far away from my hometown of Burbank before you saw anything growing at a commercial scale. I left Los Angeles for college (in a somewhat rural community, but no one ever left campus), then Chicago, and then Denver – all places equally as urban as home. Twenty years ago, I moved to Peoria and found myself for the first time, recognizing the importance of agriculture to an economy. There is no better time to understand this than in late September and early October. This month has seen a lot of windshield time with me with road trips to Nashville, Detroit, and Chicago (twice). There is nothing like a long road trip to recognize the sheer scale of this industry as you watch the landscape change before your very eyes.

We often describe the Greater Peoria economy as a three-legged stool of manufacturing, healthcare, and agriculture. We certainly know that is true, but the agriculture part is the hardest to measure. When we report the unemployment numbers each month, it is always described as “nonfarm jobs.” So, we don’t have a true sense of the share of the overall economy as we so often track these numbers as a key part of our story. We can look at the US Bureau of Economic Analysis, which in 2021 (the last year available) reported that the Peoria MSA registered nearly $628M in gross domestic product attributable to the “agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting” industries – and let’s face it; we don’t have too much of the back three-quarters of that grouping. The season’s harvest puts money into the pockets of farmers, allowing them to invest in their businesses, feed their families, and support the overall economy.

We would probably be pretty happy if our region was simply home to miles and miles of productive farmland. Lots of parts of the United States and the world would love to boast that. But what really makes Greater Peoria special is how rooted agriculture is within our other industries. Agriculture is about growing, but it is also about manufacturing. It’s one thing to grow pumpkins; it’s another thing to can 80% of the world’s pumpkin in your backyard at Libby’s (Morton) and Seneca (Princeville). The same can be said of corn and soybeans, grown here but also processed at businesses like BioUrja (Peoria) and Alto Ingredients (Pekin). You will see our farmers out in their fields with big and expensive machinery – and a not insignificant amount is designed, manufactured, and sold here by companies like Precision Planting (Tremont), 360 Yield Center (Morton), and Case New Holland (Congerville). You might even find a Caterpillar tractor or two hanging around a farm. 

At the other end of the cycle, Peoria is home to dozens of researchers at the National Center for Agricultural Utilization and Research (better known as the “AgLab”) working to protect crops from climate change, improve plant efficiency and yields, and even develop new crop-based products like sustainable aviation fuel. Agriculture and farming is ripe for innovation, so what better place to house that innovation than Greater Peoria That is one of the reasons DigiFarmz chose Peoria when it looked to expand from Brazil into the US market. The AgTech Connect efforts being led by the Morton EDC, Distillery Labs, GPEDC, Bradley, and other partners look to capitalize on our resource-rich environment to drive our economy even more forward.

There was an ad campaign years ago that suggested that when you ate your dinner, you should “thank a farmer.” That is good advice. But in Greater Peoria, we have more than just our meals as reason for gratitude.