By TIM ALEXANDER
PEORIA, Ill. — Those were attending the Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Assoc. (IFCA) 2019 Convention understood that former USDA Secretary and Illinois Agriculture Director (1977-81) John Block would be the keynote guest at the AG-SOLVE PAC IFCA breakfast in Peoria. But they were also treated to an unscheduled visit from new state Ag Director John Sullivan.
A former state senator who assumed the leadership of the Illinois Department of Agriculture (IDOA) just five days earlier, Sullivan, of Rushville, delivered an impromptu address to hundreds of farmers and industry leaders on Jan. 29.
“One week ago today I drove from my farm north of Rushville and made my way to the State Fairgrounds and the Department of Agriculture, and they showed me where my office is and where the bathroom is,” he noted. “In the last five days I’ve been there doing business, I am starting to wrap my arms around the department and what the duties and the responsibilities of the director are.
“I am not afraid to admit I have a long way to go, I am not afraid to admit to what I don’t know, but it is an honor to be here.”
Sullivan, whose family owns a Centennial farm and operates a successful real estate auction business based in western Illinois, said it was an honor to be selected by new Gov. J.B. Pritzker to lead the IDOA. Pritzker, he said, is also not hesitant to seek counsel on matters in which he has no expertise – such as farming – and basing decisions on input from all stakeholders.
“I was pleased to see (Pritzker’s selection) of my former Republican Illinois House colleague David Harris as director of the Department of Revenue. I just feel very strongly that that action, that effort, (signals) a bipartisan and inclusive effort to bring the knowledge and the abilities of those on both sides of the aisle into his administration. It’s a very smart thing to do,” said Sullivan, who operates a 200-acre corn and soybean farm and around “10 or so cattle” with his wife.
“I went back to the family auction business the last two years or so, and my two sons are now in the auction company as well as three brothers, so it is truly a family business. So to make a decision to come back into government and politics was a really difficult decision.
“A couple of things happened: No. 1, after J.B. won the election a number of people approached me about accepting the position. What put me over the top was meeting with (his) people on a couple of occasions and with Governor-elect Pritzker in a meeting that was supposed to last 30 minutes but went well over two hours,” he added.
Sullivan came away from the extended meeting with an impression that Pritzker was an individual who, although successful and wealthy, is a “tremendous listener” who is not afraid to admit what he knows and what he doesn’t know.
“He told me on more than one occasion, ‘John, I don’t know anything about agriculture. But I believe in hiring people who are knowledgeable and have leadership and vision, and putting them in positions and letting them do their jobs,’” he recalled.
Sullivan touched on what he called a variety of issues that will need to be addressed during his four-year appointment. Dicamba is at the top of the list.
“We have some outstanding, hard-working people at the Department of Ag who are on top of the issues and know what they are talking about concerning regulations. I have met with a number of folks who have informed opinions on what they think should happen with the dicamba issue. I very much look forward to working with (IFCA) and others to bring these opinions together and have a conversation as to whether we need to make any changes or adjustments,” he said.
He also spoke of the optimism he possesses as a farmer, and now as the IDOA director. “We in the farm community have been on a rollercoaster. We’ve got a lot of issues right in front of us at the moment, but you can’t be involved in agriculture and not be an optimist.
“You think that every year will be a good year; otherwise, you’d quit doing it. I am an eternal optimist and I just believe in what we are doing in production agriculture. I look forward to working with all of you,” he said.
Sullivan was a state senator in the 47th District of western Illinois between 2003-17.