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Farms and farming

On this page are links to articles about farms, farmers, and farming from feed grains to forestry, about the strip-mining and reclamation of prime farmlands, about polluted runoff from farm fields, about agribusiness and federal ag policy, and about the farm economy and rural Illinois.

I came from farm people, that is, people who farmed or sold machines to farmers or lent money to farmers or bought and sold the things farmers made. I grew up in in a state in which city folks are as perfectly surrounded by farms as Hebrideans are by water. The first two pieces I sold to national magazines were about farming and farmers, and I've continued to write about both.


While I was busy at my keyboard for 40 years, the family farmer became the agribusinessman, the grain-and-hog farm became an outdoor factory, and agriculture completed its evolution from growing food for people to producing feedstocks for industry—much to lament, in short, but more happily for the journalist, much to write about too. My pieces gradually became more critical and my prose more pointed but that had no effect on public debate whatsoever. Farming still enjoys a privileged place in Illinois culture and politics that I think the industry is less and less entitled to. 

Interested readers also should know that I devoted a chapter in my history of mid-Illinois—“Wondorous plant”—to agriculture as it affected that part of the state; see Corn Kings & One-Horse Thieves

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Manna from Decatur

On the fraud of corn-based motor fuels

Illinois Issues  October 2007

The Family Farmer: An Endangered Species?

A “typical” family farmer of central Illinois in the 1970s.

Across the Board  September 1978

"Breadbasket or Dustbowl"

This is the first part of the six-article series on soil conservation that appeared in Illinois Issues magazine between September 1981 and February 1982. The series was another of that magazine’s examinations of pressing environmental issues, in this case funded in large part by The Joyce Foundation, with the assistance of the Illinois Department of Agriculture's Division of Natural Resources. The articles were later published as a 48-page booklet titled Breadbasket or Dustbowl. (See Publications.) 

Illinois’s Disappearing Soil

The distance between Eden and the desert

Illinois Issues  September 1981

The Breaking of the Prairie

“Improving” Illinois land

Illinois Issues  October 1981

A “Resource Out of Place”

The costs of sedimentation pile up

Illinois Issues  November 1981

Saving the Soil: Target Date 2000

The rebirth of soil conservation in Illinois

Illinois Issues  December 1981

Soil Loss: The Conversion Factor

"The land is going! The land is going!"

Illinois Issues  January 1982

Farmland Preservation: Condos or Corn?

 Saving the farm—until it's time to sell

Illinois Issues  February 1982

Farmers' Welfare

The baleful effects of federal ag subsidies

Illinois Issues  November 2001

You Can't Grow Corn on Asphalt

Farmers vs. developers in the '70s

Illinois Issues  December 1978

Bacon Bits

A city boy don't know nothin' 'bout hogs

"Prejudices," Illinois Times  December 10, 1981

Corn, Coal, Corn 

Can a corn field have a life after strip mining?

Illinois Issues  July 1980

Reclaim the Prairie

Recreating a paradise of weeds in Illinois

"Prejudices"  Illinois Times  January 15, 1992

Nature's Metropolis

Chicago's economic and environmental past, synthesized

Illinois Times  December 11, 1991

How Chicago Became the Gateway to the West

A review of Cronon’s Nature's Metropolis

Chicago Enterprise  October 1991


Turning Illinois’s poor ­counties into bucolic Disneylands

"Prejudices"  Illinois Times  May 26, 1983


Forestry for fun and profit. Well, fun.

"Prejudices"  Illinois Times  June 16, 1983


Science for public interest, private profit

“Prejudices”  Illinois Times  May 19, 1983

Where Has All the Soil Gone?

Why soil loss in Illinois is a bad thing

The Ecologist (UK)  No. 5/6, 1984

Down on the Farm

The world through the eyes of Farm Week

“Prejudices”  Illinois Times  February 3, 1983

Damning the Coal Company

Trading coal today for corn forever

“Prejudices”  Illinois Times  January 18, 1980

Charlie Boon, Logger, of Goofy Ridge

A tinkering entrepreneur in the old Illinois style

Illinois Times  November 24, 1978

Export and Die

Trading topsoil for VCRs

“Prejudices”  Illinois Times  December 9, 1982

Family Business

Planting a global seed corn business

“Prejudices”  Illinois Times  June 14, 1990

Animal Rights and Wrongs

Illinoisans debate how to treat animals for food

"Prejudices"  Illinois Times  January 28, 1982

The Cantaloupe and I

How a skeptic became a melon head

"Dyspepsiana,"  Illinois Times  June 27, 2013

Where Corn Is God
Not quite everything you wanted to know about corn
"Dyspepsiana"  Illinois Times  January 21, 2016

A Good Life Well Recalled

Growing up on an Illinois farm

"Dyspepsiana"  Illinois Times  June 4, 2015 

“No Peace and Quiet”

Coal companies plow up central Illinois

“Prejudices”  Illinois Times  July 25, 1980

It's Not the Heat, It's the Corn

Are row crops making summers unbearable?

“Dyspepsiana” Illinois Times  July 12, 2011

Homegrown Energy

The gasohol debate with an Illinois accent

Reader  May 4, 1984

Praying for Rain

The “independent” farmer, explained

“Prejudices”  Illinois Times  April 6, 1989

Paving Over Oxfordshire

The demise of the Illinois countryside

“Prejudices”  Illinois Times  August 10, 1979

Same New Thing

Turning farming into agri-industry

“Prejudices”  Illinois Times  June 11, 1987

​Barns Full of Machines
Tinkerers make Illinois safe for farming
See Illinois  (unpublished)  2002

Hogs R Us

Western Illinois grows corn on the hoof

See Illinois (unpublished)  2002

Thinking About Farming

Planting new questions about Illinois ag

“Prejudices”  Illinois Times  April 12, 1984


Undeveloped arguments about developing farmland

“Prejudices”  Illinois Times  October 7, 1982

Truer Countryside

Whence Illinois’s wide empty spaces?

“Prejudices”  Illinois Times  April 19, 1990

Fair Deal
Turning the state fair into an expo of real rural life
"Dyspepsiana"  Illinois  Times September 8, 2016

Toward a Farm-fresh Food System
Can central Illinoisans learn to like their broccoli?
"Dyspepsiana"  Illinois Times  December 9, 2010

Betting the Farm
Is Illinois farmland the next real estate bubble? 
"Dyspepsiana"  Illinois Times  ​May 5, 2011

Devoid of Life

Rural Illinois continues to bleed people

"Dyspepsiana"  Illinois Times  July 14, 2011

The Birth of the Plyscraper

Could building materials be a new Illinois crop?

"Dyspepsiana" Illinois Times April 24, 2014

Illinois: The Land of Ethanol

On converting Illinois corn to motor fuel

Illinois Issues  January 1981

Ground to Gumbo

Is Illinois killing the Gulf?

Illinois Issues July/August 2006

The Wonder Bean

The soybean, Illinois’s other corn

See Illinois (unpublished)  2004

Dairy to Ducks

Illinois’s oddball agriculture

See Illinois (unpublished)  2004


East-central Illinois’s Grand Prairie

See Illinois (unpublished)  2005

Loess Is More

How prairie plants turned dirt into soil

See Illinois (unpublished)  2007

Some Books About Illinois Farming

Harvesting corn and myth from the prairie 

See Illinois (unpublished)  2009

Waiting for the Storm

Illinois is no safe harbor from climate change

Illinois Issues

2002 [?]


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John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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