Apr 26, 2016
Retiring manager mulls growth of Illinois industry

Diane Handley was raised on a corn, soybean and livestock farm, but never really had aspirations to a career in agriculture. That all changed after working a couple of jobs following college in unrelated fields, when she suddenly found herself as an employee of the Illinois Farm Bureau (IFB) and began working with specialty crop farmers.

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Diane Handley

“My farming background was very helpful in understanding the nature and risks of farming,” she said. “The specialty crop industry was unfamiliar to me, but has become hugely important to me over the years as we, as a nation, once again embrace small farms and local food production. Both large and small farming operations are imperative in feeding our world.”

Handley is IFB’s affiliate association manager. In this capacity, she manages associations such as Illinois Specialty Growers Association (ISGA) and the Illinois Wheat Association.

“I also have responsibilities with IFB, so I actually wear three hats and work for three different organizations,” she said. “As you might surmise, my days are very busy and I am juggling back and forth between these three groups all day long. Because of working for three groups, my days are never boring and I truly enjoy the variety that each new day brings.”

Changes along the way

When Handley started in the industry 23 years ago, corn and soybeans seemed to represent Illinois, but she has witnessed a strong growth in specialty crops and local food, transforming the face of agriculture in her state.

“For many years, I felt that my industry was overlooked,” she said. “That is no longer the case. We are not just being recognized for providing healthy food to consumers through fruit and vegetable production, but the number of agritourism businesses are growing as well. A lot of our mom and pop farms with roadside stands are venturing into providing a full agriculture experience for consumers such as corn mazes, pick-your-own pumpkin patches and apple and peach orchards, petting zoos, bakeries and food stands, hay rack rides and so on.”

In Handley’s opinion, the current trend of growing fruits and vegetables will continue to increase because of consumer awareness of the health benefits these crops provide.

“But, more importantly, the fact that there have been many opportunities for non-farmers in the past few years to learn about farming through beginning farming programs is instrumental in getting folks started in the business,” she said. “However, because there is only so much land, offering educational opportunities for existing row crop farmers to learn how to convert a few acres of land into fruit and vegetables production is also paramount.”

Challenges ahead

The biggest challenge in Illinois going forward, Handley said, will be the lack of research into specialty crop production, as the University of Illinois is closing two fruit and vegetable research stations this year (St. Charles Horticulture Research Station and Dixon Springs Agricultural Research Station).

“This is a huge blow to our industry,” she said. “Relying on other states for research is not ideal, because neighboring states are not necessarily going to have the same soil types, same pest control problems, etc., and I am afraid that our Illinois farmers are going to be at a huge disadvantage because of this unfortunate turn of events. We are still trying to navigate our way through this situation. I and a number of Illinois fruit and vegetable leaders will be meeting with the U of I
in April to discuss the future of our industry and what can be done to address this research deficit that we are going to be faced with beginning this year.”

Saying goodbye

Come July, Handley will be stepping down from her positions, and she and her husband will begin their retirement.

“We are in the fortunate position of being able to retire a little younger than the normal retirement age, and our dream and long-term goal has always been to winter in Florida,” she said. “A few years ago, we purchased a small home in a retirement community in Ft. Myers, and we will be wintering there and then enjoying the summer months at our home in Bloomington, spending time with our kids and 13 grandchildren. We look forward to finding a new norm down the road that will involve perhaps some new hobbies, volunteer opportunities and sports activities.”

She leaves a legacy of making ISGA stronger and in a better place than before she became involved.

“I believe that ISGA is more visible throughout the state, and more folks have heard about the organization and are more familiar with us than even five years ago,” she said. “I have made improvements to the newsletter, including adding ‘Member Features’ which spotlight our members. I believe that people enjoy reading about how their fellow farmers got started in the industry, what they grow, how they market, etc. We also started a website and a Facebook page more recently, all of which bring visibility to our organization and industry. I hope that these improvements to ISGA reflect positively on my contributions to its growth and visibility.”

She said unequivocally that the growth of the Illinois Specialty Crops, Agritourism, and Organic Conference is what makes her most proud, although she knows it would not have seen the tremendous growth without a whole host of folks who contribute to its popularity.

Although she’s saying so long to the industry, Handley promises to stay in touch with what’s going on and be there for advice if people need it.

“My favorite thing about the industry is the people that I have met along the way, from my wonderful co-workers to the amazing farmers I have come to care deeply about during my many years in this industry,” she said.

— Keith Loria, VGN correspondent

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