Betraying tradition for profits

By Paul Schmitt

A scary thought for a scary holiday- – you’re a third-generation farmer tilling land that is as much a part of your family as you are, working hard for your kindly landlord and furthering the tradition of family agriculture. Suddenly the nightmare begins; your ‘kindly’ landlord turns out to be the University of Illinois and your contract with it has just expired to turn from shared profits to a cash rent system that will ultimately drive your family far from this well-known black earth.

From Farmbot to the South Farms to Davenport Hall, there are riddles and clues to the University of Illinois’ agrarian beginnings sprinkled across the Urbana-Champaign campus. The College of ACES, home to many of the UI’s most astonishing historical developments in research, is nationally renowned for its excellence and has remained a pillar of an institution boasting more than 40,000 students.

Not only does the University of Illinois gain national attention through ACES and its developments, it has also been a significant contributor to making a positive impression on youths throughout the state of Illinois via University of Illinois extension programs and 4H.

Recently, however, members of the University of Illinois Board of Trustees have scrapped a longstanding UI agricultural tradition of profit sharing with local farmers who tend to the University’s donated lands, employing a cash rent system for University farm grounds. The cash rent system potentially aims to garner the UI more bang for its proverbial buck, but it is yet to be determined exactly how much profit.

While profits are needed at a major learning institution, especially in this state, they should be potentially reconsidered under circumstances such as these – families’ and people’s livelihoods are on the line. In Sunday’s News-Gazette, Kenny Thurman of Sidney writes of the trustees, “What they are overlooking is that farming is not only a business but a way of life, and this is my life.” Mr. Thurman finds himself in an even more dire position as his homestead, which includes facilities such as grain bins and storage sheds, is included in the University land.

Yet Kenny Thurman isn’t the only one who is upset. Since the inception of the cash rent system, the Illinois Farm Bureau has raised objections to the policy, resonating the general feelings of farmers who have enjoyed the former system for generations.

Overall, it’s an interesting move that doesn’t logically seem to yield enough benefit to offset the disruption of the lives of many loyal stewards of the University. This point is especially valid considering the University is reaping nothing but benefit from these grounds.

How did it come this? Why is the UI running people from their homes, from their memories? Perhaps the inept policy comes from inept policy makers. For those readers who are downstaters or are of an agricultural background, here’s a tidbit of interest; of the nine appointed trustees representing the University, only two reside outside of Chicagoland.

Additionally, UIUC Student Trustee Chime Asonye originates from Chicago, likely rendering his knowledge of downstate farm issues to that of little help. Sarah Doyle, the student trustee from the University of Illinois at Springfield came to her campus from La Grange Park, just next to Brookfield – again, not the corn capital of the state. Ironically, the most rurally oriented of the student trustees represents the Chicago campus and comes from Pingree Grove, just south of I-90.

With no student and little appointed representation of downstate/rural concerns, should the Board of Trustees truly be making major policy decisions of such a crass nature? The issue at hand isn’t about profit, rather, it is about people’s lifestyles and family legacies.

The cash rent system that is being implemented by the University stands to gain little when you consider the impact that it has on those involved. Illinois has a long history of reaching out to rural communities, building programs and lives with a positive effect.

As this new policy stands to destroy livelihoods and homes, it is time to reflect on the historic virtues that should outweigh that almighty dollar – learning and labor.