12-8-16alston_0824Michael Alston grew up in Michigan and played football at Michigan State University, but never considered that his career would lead him to agriculture.  Alston is currently the Associate Administrator of the Risk Management Agency (RMA) and Deputy Manager of the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation (FCIC) Board, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).  In this role, he is the senior career employee within the RMA.

The RMA is the agency that administers and oversees the federal crop insurance program.  This program helps farmers insure their crops against weather losses like tornadoes, droughts, or hail, as well as against total losses from other pests and pressures. The program covers more than $100 billion in liabilities nationwide every year.

Alston oversees the daily operations of the agency, advises the Office of the Secretary on RMA issues and positions, and also ensures the safety and workplace environment of the Washington, DC and field office employees.

Lindsay: What path led you to this position at this time?

Michael: Working here, in this position, has been a 30-year journey.  After I graduated from Michigan State University, I took a job with the Justice Department, which led me to live and work overseas.  From the Justice Department, I worked for the State Department for a few years, and at that point in my life, some personal factors led me to switch careers and work for the USDA.

At that time, USDA was looking for leaders, and by that time I had developed some good leadership skills so it was a good fit for me.  I worked in Springfield, IL as the Deputy Director of that RMA office and then became the Director there.  After about 10 years in Springfield, I took a position in Washington, DC working as the Associate Deputy Administrator for Compliance and l later moved to the Deputy Administrator for Insurance Services.  At this point in my career, I was overseeing the ten regional offices of the RMA, and working with the 16 private insurance companies and the binding document between the government and those insurance companies.  I oversaw that process.

All of those positions in the USDA were essentially leadership positions – making decisions, providing the right information to the right people, ensuring the appropriate work was getting done, and often being strategic about what positions and what work was most important to accomplish a goal.

Lindsay: What do you love most about your job?

Michael: I know at the end of every day that I have helped and worked with someone in rural America.

ag-careers_executiveI have always understood that rural America is the backbone of our country and that a lot of folks don’t understand where food comes from.  When you have the opportunity to travel overseas to countries where food isn’t available as I have, you understand how important food security and food to sustain a country really is.  Go to places where they don’t have food and then you are ready to invest in fresh, safe, cheap, available food.

So I love knowing that I’ve helped a farmer or rancher stay in business.  I love knowing that I’ve expanded opportunities for them.  I enjoy promoting rural America.

Lindsay: What skills/education do you believe have helped you to be successful?

Michael: For me in my career, the most important skill set is flexibility and adaptability.  I think often times people hold onto some theory of the past, and it has long ago become obsolete.  You constantly must look at yourselves and what you are doing and try to improve.

Also, the foundation of any leader is accountability and integrity.  If you aren’t accountable or you don’t have personal integrity, no matter what you do, it doesn’t matter.  You have nothing.

Lindsay: Describe a “day in the life” at your office.

Michael: I start at 8 am and I have meetings from 8 am to 4 pm.

I meet with folks from IT, I meet with folks from civil rights, I meet with the budget office, the chief financial officer, and folks from the FCIC Board.  I spend my day talking to others, making decisions, and channeling information up or down.

Lindsay: Based on your experiences, do you think young people today should consider a career in agriculture?

Michael: Yes, definitely.

Agriculture makes up about 17 percent of all the jobs in the U.S.  If you look strictly at rural America, that number goes up to about 35-40 percent.  Most of those jobs are not about having your hands in the dirt – although that’s important – but there are so many other skill sets involved in the industry

In the USDA, I can go to any college campus in any discipline and hire someone.  We need folks good at math, geography, finance, computers … there’s so much more to this industry than farming and ranching.

So yes, not only is it a vibrant industry, but it’s just very important and it sustains our country.  I would definitely encourage young folks to think about agriculture.

Mitchell_LindsayLindsay Mitchell
Marketing Manager
IL Corn


Trump_Nom_072216After one of the longest, most surreal and arduous political campaigns in a generation, we have finally reached a conclusion.  Donald Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States. This was one of the most divisive campaigns in history with more twist and turns and mudslinging than most people generally thought possible.

Republicans have retained control of both the House and Senate. The House of Representatives, as expected, will remain in Republican hands. The Republicans maintain at least 238 seats, with four more yet to be called.

From Illinois, all but one of the seats will remain in the hands of the incumbent party. The only new Member from Illinois is Raja Krishnamoorthi, an Indian American who will fill the 8th district seat vacated by Congresswoman Duckworth.  Brad Schneider, who was formerly a Member, defeated Rep. Bob Dold to take back his old seat in a 10th district rematch.

tammy_duckworthThe Senate will remain in Republican control with 51 votes. Control of the Senate went down to the wire, with a number of races too close to call.  Senator Kirk, long viewed as the most vulnerable Senator, lost re-election last night to Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth. Duckworth has had a good relationship with agriculture in Illinois and has been supportive of the Renewable Fuel Standard and needed infrastructure improvements to our inland waterways.

Republicans will also continue to hold the majority of governorships across the country. Here are a few key statistics as of Wednesday morning:

  • 013-04-18t201616z_2132165920_gm1e94j0bon01_rtrmadp_3_usa-immigration-visas_1f814cd4ecf72d45a2bb0dd23993fdf5-nbcnews-ux-2880-1000Senator Schumer (D-NY) is expected to replace Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) as Senate Minority Leader.
  • Senator Inhofe (R-OK) steps down as the chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Senator Barrasso (R-ID) will likely replace him.
  • Committee Ranking Member Barbara Boxer (D-CA) is retiring and will likely be replaced by Senator Tom Carper (D-DE).
  • House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers is term-limited and will likely be replaced by Rep. Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) or Aderholt (R-AL).
  • We are not expecting changes to the leadership of the House and Senate Ag Committees.

Donald Trump’s campaign did not provide significant information on agriculture in the primaries or general election. Because of this, it is difficult to say what USDA priorities will be in a Trump Administration, as they did not make their positions well-known. He has vowed to rescind many of the regulations enacted by the Obama Administration, which could include the Clean Power Plan, the WOTUS rule, among others.  Additionally, Trump’s anti-trade agreement message seems to have resonated well with many of his supporters. Look for a President Trump to either abandon the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) or begin to negotiate a new trade agreement. He may also make efforts to change aspects of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Agriculture stakeholders should begin doing outreach to the new Trump Administration political appointees as they start to take their new positions.

Congress returns to Washington next week and will begin to address appropriations past December 9 and also hold leadership elections for the 115th Congress.


It’s National Voter Registration Day! Have you registered to vote yet? Organizations and plain-old politically active citizens are spending the day helping raise awareness about registering to vote and even helping people go through the process. Some might not think voter registration is all that important, but here’s a snapshot of voter history in Illinois during general elections since 1964:


A quick glance at the numbers might seem pretty good, but those percentages are based on registered voters who then went on to vote in the election. If you look at Illinois’ population of voting age individuals (approx. 9.7 million), the turnout percentage will likely be around 55% for this year. That’s not too great anymore, right? Voter turnout is even worse during election years where there is not a presidential candidate.

It doesn’t help that some states (like Illinois) don’t have automatic voter registration systems, meaning each person has to individually register to vote. Registration deadlines and requirements (like having a permanent residential address) can complicate matters even more. So National Voter Registration Day is both a helpful reminder but also a non-partisan campaign to ensure that eligible voters can participate in the democratic process.

nvrd-social-graphics-04Not registered? No problem (well I can’t guarantee that, but, hey, points for optimism)! We can fix that (maybe)! Many states have their own system for registering voters, but here are a few general resources:

Within these websites you can find information like:

  • State-by-state deadlines to register to vote, to request an absentee ballot, and to turn in an absentee ballot
  • A list of states that offer online registration
  • A form to find out if you’re registered to vote
  • Who will be on your ballot including national, state, and municipal candidates
  • Election reminders via text message (super modern, right?)
  • What to do if you’ve moved to another city in the same state
  • How deployed military personnel and/or families can vote
  • How to vote if you’re studying abroad, on sabbatical, or just don’t know when or if you’re coming back to the United States
  • Requirements to vote early
  • Official voting hours on election day
  • Resources for college students away from home on election day

So why talk about voting on an ag blog?

i-votedToo often we think of Election Day being about the future president. Sure, it takes center stage. This election will be momentous for our country and its future direction, but other decisions are being made on that day. The candidates on the ballot for local, regional, and state elections are just as important as presidential candidates. These elections select the leaders of your community, the people who will have a direct and a tangible impact on your future and the health of the community in which you live.

Also, do research before you vote. It might seem tedious to learn about all of these people rather than just select a random name or not vote at all, but think of it this way: Your vote is one more towards making sure the right people are elected who can represent your interests, your farm, and your family.

It’s not impossible that your vote can be the one that makes the difference.

Taylor McDonald
Communications Assistant
IL Corn


IMG_8861This past Tuesday (August 16) was Ag Day at the Illinois State Fair. If you’re familiar with the history of the fair, you’ll know the fair’s primary purpose was for agriculture. People brought their animals from across the state and to compete in showing. For instance, the competition would decide which dairy cow had the best features and characteristic of the ideal dairy cow that would best carry on the breed. These competitions still exist today and have varying criteria based on the category/animal.

Since then, the Illinois State Fair has evolved to include a non-farming audience with different games, rides, concerts and foods. While no one is discounting the glory of a funnel cake, Ag Day was created to give a spotlight to the fair’s original intention. This year, IL Corn joined other agriculture organizations, farming families, and government leaders to showcase the industry while also engaging the non-farming community to learn about issues agriculture faces today.

Among the events:


  • 8-16-16raunerGovernment officials including Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner and U.S. Congressman for Illinois Cheri Bustos showed their support by meeting with industry leaders.



  • IMG_8851Illinois FFA members interacted with government and industry officials to talk shop as they learn more to become our nation’s next agriculture leaders.


Check out more from our Facebook, where we live-streamed an interview with Illinois FFA members and heard from IL Corn leaders.


Less than 83 days remain until the United States determines who will lead the country for the next four years. A new administration means the roll-out of new programs and legislative agendas. Therefore, it’s important to know for what these individuals stand, not just for what makes them famous (or infamous for that matter). The positions that candidates take now on such issues as agriculture can have impacts decades later. That’s why farmers must take a look at how or if the candidates prioritize agriculture.

For this first edition, we’ll start with the major party candidates, Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and businessman Donald Trump. The remaining independent party candidates will be covered in a later post.

(Sorting method: Candidates are not divided by preference. Last names are sorted alphabetically.)

Secretary Hillary Clinton – Democratic Party

hillary-accepts-nom-dnc-7-29-16Secretary Clinton has a direct connection to farming communities in her work with constituencies in rural, upstate New York. In August 2015, Secretary Clinton rolled out a plan to revitalize rural communities. While some points do not speak directly to farming, the emphasis on revitalizing rural towns, which are largely farming towns, would likely boost the agriculture economy. Within this plan, Secretary Clinton supported providing government subsidies for farmers that are struggling and helping the next generation of farmers with funding, education, and mentoring for “aspiring farmers and ranchers.”

Secretary Clinton also supports the expansion and use of renewable energy sources, including biofuels. She seeks a strengthening of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) and actively opposes the EPA’s cutting back of already-established target blending levels.

On GM foods, Secretary Clinton supports a mandatory labeling program, citing the consumer’s right to know. Yet, in those same remarks, she upheld sound science and the need for GM seeds, particularly in populations that are drought-resistant.

Current Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack endorsed Secretary Clinton in 2015.

Donald Trump – Republican Party

Trump_Nom_072216Although Mr. Trump does not have any direct connection to farming or rural communities, many of his stances have implications for the agriculture economy.

In 2015, Mr. Trump gave explicit support to the RFS in order to achieve energy independence from other nations. The federal program has been critical in expanding markets for renewable fuels such as ethanol.

Mr. Trump supports biotechnology and GMO foods and dispels the need for right-to-know labeling mandates. This comes in contradiction with a now-deleted tweet on the candidate’s infamous Twitter feed: “Too much #Monsanto in the #corn creates issues in the brain?”  The comment was originally made by a Nevada businessman. Mr. Trump later claimed it was an intern that re-posted the remark.

The candidate is also infamous for his plans on immigration reform. However, some have argued that his would decrease workforce numbers in agriculture significantly. The American Farm Bureau Federation noted that the ripple effects of deportation could be decreased production, increased food prices, and a drop in net farm income.

On August 16, 2016, Mr. Trump’s campaign announced that he has formed an agricultural advisory committee composed of several governors, including former 2016 GOP candidates Rick Perry and Jim Gilmore, and lawmakers. We should expect that more concrete agriculture solutions will come from Mr. Trump and his new brain trust in the following weeks.

Trade – A Hot Button Issue

Both presidential candidates are against current free trade agreements, specifically the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a wide-reaching, multi-national deal that has been a major focus of President Obama’s remaining time in office. The current White House administration proclaims that the “past seven years have represented the strongest period in history for American agricultural exports…totaling $911.4 billion.” Agriculture exports increased from $56 billion in 2000 to $155 billion in 2014, per the USDA. Clearly, farmers have a major stake in free trade with foreign nations. Aside from the issues that come from working with nations on a case-by-case basis (e.g. lack of multi-national support could reduce leverage and ethos to produce more efficient and effective deals), United States agriculture would fall victim on a financial level as they might severely scale back commodity exports, even just during negotiation of new trade deals.

This review is not completely exhaustive but can hopefully give a clearer picture on how either candidate would influence the future of American farmers. It’s important that we choose someone who clearly stands in solidarity with the modern farmer.


Taylor McDonald
Communications Assistant
IL Corn


7-11-16CaptianDCIn less than a week, the Illinois Corn Growers and Marketing Boards, along with FFA Members from across the state, will be traveling to Washington, DC. While in DC, members and students will be spending time meeting with congressional staff talking about big issues in American Agriculture. The top three priorities are:

-Secure funding for the Navigational Ecosystem Sustainability Program (NESP) which will enable new and upgraded locks and dams along the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers. Upgrading the locks and dams will improve efficiency and capacity of the Upper Mississippi River System (UMRS) navigation system, continue to provide an energy-efficient choice to transport freight by water, and improve a crumbling locks and dams system that costs Illinois farmers every day in lost efficiency.

-Preserve a robust and sustainable crop insurance for U.S. farmers. Nearly 10 percent of U.S. employment can be contributed to agriculture and its related industries. Agriculture is an important sector of the U.S. economy, therefore, it is in the public interest to have a financially stable agriculture sector that produces the nation’s safe and affordable food and fiber supply and supports the rural economy.

-Promote programs that stimulate farmer profitability, maintaining family farms in Illinois and preserving the economic boost agriculture is poised to provide.  Among these programs are trade opportunities and the Renewable Fuels Standard, which both create demand.

Attendees will not only be meeting with congressional staff from Illinois, but other states as well. The goal is to inform staff on the importance of agriculture in their own state and across the United States.

Spangler_Kaitlyn_IL Corn intern 2x3 16


Kaity Spangler
Legislative Intern
IL Corn


3-18-16 Photo with Congressman FosterIllinois farmers are pictured here with U.S. Congressman Bill Foster. Illinois farmers met with Illinois delegates in Washington, D.C. over National Ag Week to discuss sustaining the profitability of farming. Illinois farmers shared messages from their home state about issues critical to farming, from the importance of the TPP and free trade to the preservation of crop insurance.


Free trade is beneficial farmers. For instance, a strong free trade agreement makes it possible for farmers to have market opportunities and meet food demands around the world. The economic stimulus from worldwide demand for American products also helps each of us feed our families.

TPP-AgricultureA study conducted by the American Farm Bureau Federation o
n the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free trade agreement that is already negotiated and waiting for Congressional approval, explains that the American economy benefits from a $4.4 billion revenue increase that not only sustains farming within the United States but also helps to contribute to a healthy American economy.

  • Livestock receipts with implementation are $5.8 billion higher with approval than without. For the crops sector –including fruits and vegetables—receipts are $2.7 billion higher. Net farm income is also $4.4 billion higher.
  • S. beef and pork exports are expected to be $1 billion and $940 million higher, respectively.
  • Farm prices for corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, cotton, fed steers, feeder steers, barrows and gilts, wholesale poultry and milk are all projected to be marginally higher with the agreement in place than without.
  • Net trade rises for rice, cotton, beef, pork, poultry, butter, cheese and non-fat dry milk
  • Net trade of corn declines slightly, but overall use increases and corn revenue rises as higher feed use is needed to provide for the added beef and pork exports rather than being exported as raw commodities.



The Agricultural Act of 2014, better known as the Farm Bill, “is an omnibus, multi-year piece of authorizing legislation that governs an array of agricultural and food programs.” On the contrary to most opinions, the farm bill is not just about farming. In fact, there are twelve separate titles included in the legislation that receive funding.  These programs focus on commodities, conservation, trade, nutrition, food assistance (food stamps), credit, rural development, research and extension, forestry, horticulture, crop insurance, and miscellaneous spending.


Organic and natural are two separate terminologies. Organic is a defined and regulated process in which food is produced without synthetic fertilizers. In comparison, natural is not defined by the FDA, which allows so many companies to use the term for their products. It is generally believed that natural foods are ‘minimally synthesized.”

There is no evidence that organic foods are healthier than conventional food products, but many people have this belief. Therefore, the price of organic food products is higher, compared to natural and processed foods.


The Malthusian Catastrophe is the theory that, while food production sees linear growth over time, the global population experiences exponential growth. This means that the population will outgrow our food supply. However, this theory was proven inaccurate due to technological innovations that have greatly expanded our food production process. Additionally, while the global population continues to grow, the growth rate is decreasing. This is due to a decrease in birth rates for developed countries, like the United States. As the world becomes more developed, the birth and death rates will begin to even out. Eventually, the population will stabilize, or perhaps even slightly decline.


The false belief that farmers cannot grow what they want probably originated from the idea of subsidies. A subsidy is an incentive, which can be used to encourage farmers to plant certain seeds, but it certainly does NOT require it. There is no statute that controls how farmers operate. In fact, there are many other factors that influence a farmer’s decision on want to plant. This includes yield potential, soil type, seed availability, seed pricing, geography, how long it takes to be harvested, resistance to drought and pests, etc.


While there are many who believe that the agriculture industry primarily features corporate farming, the truth is that “97 percent of US farms are operated by families.” In other words, those views could not be farther from the truth.

One of the reasons that the United States is a global agricultural exporter is because of our family-farm setup. These farmers know how to utilize their land much more efficiently than just some corporate entity. Farming is a privilege for families and individuals to make a living by providing food for the world. It is not just about making a profit.


For water, farmers rely on springs, rivers, creeks, ponds, wells, and municipal options. Accessing groundwater from wells is a popular technique, as farmers can protect its high quality more efficiently.

Additionally, farmers used various practices to preserve their water resources. Rotational grazing and mulch, for example, allow soils to contain higher volumes of water. Such practices are beneficial to farmers, as they do not have to rely on other water sources.


With huge agricultural-based companies like Cargill, ADM, DuPont Pioneer, and Monsanto, it’s hard to understand why this even needs to be discussed. There are endless career opportunities within the agriculture sector involving marketing, sales, economics, finance, consulting, nutrition, soils, food science, advertising, engineering, insurance, research, animal care, management, policy making, etc.

austin fee

Austin Fee
University of Illinois