Illinois' new House Ag Committee chair shares farm experiences

Chicago native with horticulture experience took over vacated seat, hopes to visit more farms.

Rep. Sonya Harper, D-Chicago, chair of the Illinois House Agriculture and Conservation Committee, climbs into a New Holland T8030 cab to plant two rounds with Christian County Farm Bureau Director Trent Norris near Palmer. (Photos by Kay Shipman)

By Kay Shipman

The new chair of the Illinois House Agriculture and Conservation Committee grew her farming knowledge this week from the seat of a New Holland T8030 and among rows of strawberry plants.

“I look forward to learning more and working on agricultural issues,” Rep. Sonya Harper, D-Chicago, told FarmWeek as she rode around Christian County with county Farm Bureau Manager Mellisa McMillan and Illinois Farm Bureau Northeast Legislative Coordinator Christina Nourie.

Harper made an inaugural planting tour to her adopted county Farm Bureau to supplement her harvest tours. Although the legislator had been away from home for two-and-a-half weeks and the House finished work late Saturday, Harper stayed in central Illinois to speak with farmers like Trent Norris and Melvin Repscher. She nodded as they shared this year’s challenges.

An Ag Committee member, Harper took on chair responsibilities in May when former chairman Rep. Jerry Costello II resigned his seat to accept an Illinois Department of Natural Resources post. Harper brings a background in horticulture and urban farming experience at Growing Home in Englewood on Chicago’s south side.

Harper and Repscher shared vegetable crop experiences while examining U-pick fields at Big M Berry Patch near Taylorville. Although birds, deer, racoons and squirrels eat the Repscher family’s strawberries, “deer don’t bother kale,” the farmer said with a chuckle.

In nearby Palmer, Harper climbed beside county Farm Bureau Director Trent Norris to plant soybeans and discuss farming and technology.

“It’s really cool that Representative Harper came here,” Norris said. “It’s important for her to be in the fields and see the issues. I’ve really enjoyed seeing what she’s doing in the city, too, during county Farm Bureau tours of her Chicago district.”

Nourie and McMillan agreed a long-term relationship between Christian County farmers and their adopted lawmaker since 2015 has benefited the farmers as well as the representative.

“As legislators move forward in their careers, these long-term relationships are important,” Nourie said. “You never know where your legislator is going to go.”

During Harper’s trip through the country, she enthusiastically mentioned touring farms elsewhere in Illinois. At one point, she excitedly added a stop in every county, but later laughed that her staff’s realistic opinion might differ.

However, the representative remained serious about connecting with Illinois farmers and agriculture. “I want to stay in communication with people in the agriculture industry,” Harper said. “Not necessarily just legislation, but also with community education and outreach.”

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