By Katie Zelechowski
Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton visited the Farm Progress Show to address concerns she sees many rural Illinois communities facing. Speaking to attendees in the Illinois Department of Agriculture (IDOA) tent, she identified broadband expansion, labor shortage and health care access as being issues she and Gov. J.B. Pritzker will focus on addressing within rural areas of the state.
As she walked through the show site with Iowa Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg and Indiana Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch, Stratton said the need for increased broadband coverage is apparent. Limited communication imposed on farmers looking to share knowledge and expand their businesses is a shortcoming of the current system that Stratton said must be solved.
“They’re doing some really innovative things around technology and that means that we need to make sure that all of our farmers throughout the state are connected,” she said.
Illinois Farm Bureau President Richard Guebert Jr. said he was glad Stratton discussed this challenge many growers encounter. “We should not be behind our city neighbors who have good, high-speed broadband,” he told FarmWeek.
Stratton said she hopes the $420 million investment in broadband expansion outlined in the Rebuild Illinois capital plan Pritzker signed earlier this year can resolve this problem.
Related: Bringing digital 'lifeline' to rural Illinois. Read more here.
For Brian Duncan, IFB vice president, the need to improve internet access in rural communities links directly to labor issues within the agricultural industry. He said there are students in his district that struggle to pursue degrees in higher education because of these difficulties.
“The issue for farmers on the farm is technology, but there is also an issue for students who need to access online resources for education,” he said.
As chair of the Governor’s Rural Affairs Council, Stratton said she works with other leaders and stakeholders within rural communities to better understand these challenges and find solutions.
“We work to support their needs and make sure that we do what we can to lift up our rural and agricultural communities,” she said.
Exposing the state’s youth to career opportunities within the agricultural sector is key to growing a workforce pipeline, said Stratton. Part of her role on the statewide council is looking at the economic growth and development potential of communities across the state. She said this information will allow the group to continue seeking telehealth services for individuals with limited access to health care.
Illinois Director of Agriculture John Sullivan commended her efforts. “She is such a tremendous advocate for agriculture and the rural parts of the state. She has really been a partner to the Department of Ag,” he noted.
Watch the full press conference with Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton and Illinois Director of Ag John Sullivan here.