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Farmland Preservation: Condos or Corn?

 Saving the farm—until it's time to sell

Illinois Issues

February 1982

This is the sixth part of the six-article series that appeared in Illinois Issues magazine between September 1981 and February 1982 and was later published as a 48-page booklet titled Breadbasket or Dustbowl. (See Publications above.) The topic this month was regulatory and economic steps that might be taken to preserve Illinois’s stock of prime farmland. Those steps never took Illinois very far, but then improvements in farm technologies would soon mean that productivity increases made the loss of capacity to farmland loss seem trivial.


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.


All the pieces in this series have been edited for re-publication on this web site to correct infelicities of language occasioned by the rush to get them into print. For other articles in the series, see "Breadbasket or Dustbowl" on the Farms & farming page.


Illinois Issues introduction: Uncertainties about the capacity of the U.S. agricultural land base to meet future demands on it have already established the preservation of prime farmland as a major issue of the '80s. While the federal government has pronounced a preservationist policy, it has been largely left up to state and local governments to devise and implement programs that will realize this end. In this, the sixth and final article in Illinois Issues' soil conservation series funded by The Joyce Foundation, Illinois’s various approaches to farmland preservation are explored. (For those readers who have enjoyed the soil conservation series, we would like to call attention to the upcoming series on water resources in Illinois—also funded by The Joyce Foundation—which will begin in the June 1982 magazine.)


* * *


Farmland is a lot like oil. It is a finite natural resource. It takes eons to form. It costs more the scarcer it gets, and the United States was originally blessed with more of it than almost any other place on earth. And Americans waste an awful lot of it.


In the course of an average year in the late 1970s, new airports, packing houses, golf courses, condominium complexes and industrial parks were consuming Illinois farmland at a rate of roughly 100,000 acres a year. Preserving it had never been much of an issue in Illinois; as was the case elsewhere in the U.S., there has always been plenty of food, and conversion of farmland to more "productive" uses was the goal of both public policy and private ambition.


That has changed—a little. It is still possible for farmland preservationists to be branded "obstructionists" by development interests from the city, as happened last fall when adjacent landowners tried to block rezoning of farmland near Rantoul in Champaign County as a site for a big new printing plant. But it happens less often. In the mid-1970s there occurred a minor revolution in U.S. agriculture. Huge grain sales abroad, an end to government set-aside programs at home, and an ominous leveling off of productivity gains farmers had come to expect as automatic created what one government study carefully called "uncertainties about the capacity of the U.S. agricultural land base" to meet future demands on it.


Farmland conversion at the township or county level was piecemeal and easy to ignore, and it was not until its cumulative national effects were made known that stopping it became an issue. The first lesson in a continuing course on farmland preservation was given in 1975 by then-U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz who cataloged the unintended effects on farmland conversion of a variety of federal policies on farmland in a seminal report titled, "Perspectives on Prime Lands."


Federal “change of heart”


Since then, the federal bureaucracy has worked fitfully to elaborate a preservationist policy. In 1976 the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) asked federal agencies to evaluate the impact of their programs on farmland. This modest initiative led to soul-searching at both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) which, with the U.S. Department of Transportation, were the principal architects of the post-World War II transformation of the U.S. countryside. In a new land-use policy announced in the fall of 1978, for example, USEPA admitted that decisions about where to build sewers and other urban amenities "do not adequately recognize that agricultural lands are a finite productive. . . resource which is cumulatively and irretrievably diminished as a result of federal actions." It promised to do better.


Similar re-evaluations were undertaken in 1978 at USDA which culminated in then-Secretary Bob Bergland's Memorandum No. 1827. As USEPA had done, Bergland required that his department's agencies judge projects not merely by their impact on farmers (the past, informal standard) but by their impact on farmland as well, for example, by requiring that rural development projects respect "Important Farmlands" as designated by state or local governments.


One of the tasks Bergland set for his department in that memo was to amass data on land and land use for further study. It is a measure of the national indifference to the subject that no one then knew exactly how much farmland there was in the U.S., or how it was used. To answer these questions, USDA and the CEQ collaborated in 1979 on a study to measure the nation's farmland resource and to describe both the causes and cures of its gradual disappearance. The National Agricultural Lands Study (NALS) was made public in January of 1981. Its conclusions by then were no longer new, but the NALS helped confirm the opinion of a growing coalition of farm state congressional representatives and federal bureaucrats that farmland preservation was going to have to be one of the issues in the '80s.


Nowhere is this change of heart at the federal level more vividly apparent than at the Farmers Home Administration (FmHA). Until well into the '70s the FmHA (along with the USEPA's sewer subsidizers and the U.S. Department of Transportation's road-pavers) was to farmland conversion what a match is to a fuse. Former Illinois FmHA director Jon Linfield once admitted that "good intentions, lack of foresight and a total absence of planning" in the spending of the agency's roughly $400 million annual state budget of low-cost housing and rural development loans and grants had added its share to Illinois’s 100,000-acre annual toll.


In 1979, however, Illinois FmHA announced a new resource management policy which, stated at its simplest, pledged the agency to make no loans, loan guarantees, or grants which would result in the loss of prime farmland. The policy was later expanded to protect certain wetlands, forest, and natural areas.


The Illinois FmHA was ahead of many state FmHAs in this regard. It was ahead of Congress too; last fall Congress required FmHAs to add a punitive two percent interest rate on loans made for certain community facilities and non-farm projects built on prime farmland. State FmHA officials note that they were trying to find alternative sites for such developments anyway, and that by exempting rural housing from its list of proscribed projects (presumably for political reasons), Congress failed to stem one of the most land-consuming forms of development.

Other federal agencies in Illinois have followed FmHA's example. Housing and Urban Development, for example, now refers certain development applications to FmHA for comment. But farmland conversion remains a distant controversy at many agencies. To cite just one example: A section of the federal transportation act passed in the 1960s prohibits federally funded highways from being built on parkland or on archeological sites. This restriction in effect requires that such roads be built on adjacent farmland, and Illinois agriculture officials want to see prime farmland given the same legal protection as parks.


It was in the hope of reforming such bad habits that Bergland's successor John Block—who had been a vocal advocate of preservation during his tenure as director of the Illinois Department of Agriculture (IDA) from 1977 to 1981—asked President Reagan to issue an executive order requiring all federal agencies to undertake the same sort of land-use policy review required of USDA and USEPA. A similar requirement has been written into the 1981 farm bill by Congress, although that action has not vented pressure for an executive order. Illinois ag officials acknowledge that such an order is "on the back burner" at the White House, but, as one IDA staffer has put it, "What Congress can mandate, the bureaucracy can thwart. What the President mandates gets done."


Such an order couldn't come too soon in the opinion of several of Illinois’s private environmental and citizen organizations. In December the Illinois South Project, the coal industry watch-dog group, filed suit against Interior Secretary James G. Watt in a dispute over his implementation of those provisions of the 1977 federal strip mine act governing the mining and reclamation of prime farmlands. Illinois South Project was joined in the suit by seven other state and national groups, including the Illinois Wildlife Federation, the Illinois League of Women Voters, and the Illinois Farmers Union. The Carter administration had set an August 2, 1982, deadline to end exemptions granted to existing mining operations under the "grandfather" provisions of the act. Watt removed that deadline, which Illinois South has said "will have a devastating impact on the Midwest's prime farmland." It remains unclear, in other words, whether John Block or James Watt speaks for the Reagan administration on the farmland preservation issue.

Federally regulated activities such as strip mining so far affect only a tiny fraction of farmland. It is necessary to note, however, that even if every federal agency were henceforth to tiptoe through the countryside, being careful not to step on any but the most marginal land, the effect on conversion rates, though significant, would be far from decisive. In 1980, according to Linfield, the then-director of the Illinois FmHA, the programs of all federal agencies combined accounted for only about ten percent of rural construction in the state.


Illinois’s preservation efforts


Given this fact, plus the historical local resistance to even the concept of federal land-use controls, experts generally agree that farmland preservation is a problem which will have to be solved at the state and local level. Most of the various regulatory and financial schemes to stem conversion have originated in state capitals and county boardrooms, including those in Illinois. Like many farm states, Illinois only recently came to officially appreciate the economic implications of the disappearance of its farmland. In the late 1970s, the arithmetic of conversion became dear to farm groups, farm county legislators, and (through the advocacy of new IDA director Block) the executive branch of state government.


Once begun, events in Illinois moved quickly. In late 1978 a Rural Revitalization Planning Program (funded by FmHA) called attention to the need to preserve what was coming to be called the farmland resource, and the IDA and the Illinois Institute of Natural Resources (now the Department of Energy and Natural Resources) began drafting a state preservation policy. Meanwhile Block reorganized the IDA to include a new Division of Natural Resources, to which responsibility for preservation programs eventually would be moved. In January 1980, Gov. James. R. Thompson in his State of the State speech called for "more rational planning" to protect the "precious heritage" of Illinois farmland, and in July 1980, the first statewide conference on farmland preservation was held.


This conference revealed the breadth of the emerging official consensus on the issue, as  its cosponsors included the Illinois Agricultural Association (the umbrella group which includes the powerful Illinois Farm Bureau), the IDA, IINR, Department of Commerce and Community Affairs, USDA, Illinos FmHA, and the Illinois Land Resources Management Study Commission.

The 1980 conference was more notable, however, as the occasion of the announcement of Gov. Thompson's Executive Order No. 4 (1980). This document may become the Magna Carta of the Illinois farmland preservation movement. In it, Thompson stated, "It shall be the policy of the State of Illinois to protect. . . the State's prime agricultural land from irreversible conversion." Noting that farmland conversion "reduces future food production capability and may ultimately undermine agriculture as a major economic activity in Illinois," and noting further that the state lacked a single coordinating body to insure that the state's own agencies do not abet conversion, Thompson did three things. He named the IDA as the state's official preservation agency. He required that the nine state "development" agencies complete preservation policy statements by July 1982, including measures each agency will take to "mitigate conversion to the maximum extent practicable." These agencies include the Capital Development Board, Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, Illinois Institute of Natural Resources, Bureau of the Budget, Illinois Commerce Commission and four code departments—Conservation (DOC), Mines and Minerals (DMM), Transportation (IDOT) and Commerce and Community Affairs (DCCA). 

And he set up the administrative machinery to carry the program forward via a new interagency committee composed of these same agencies.


The IDA was authorized to review state capital projects by means of a new "agricultural impact statement" which would be required of sponsoring agencies. And although not required by the order, a Farmland Preservation Advisory Committee was created by the IDA in April 1981 as a "private sector counterpart" to the interagency committee, according to the IDA. The new group's membership includes municipal officials, bankers, urban planners, developers, state lawmakers, environmentalists, and others; as the IDA phrased it in a recent paper, "prudence and propriety dictated" that these influential groups be "kept abreast" of the department's work.


Jim Frank is the superintendent of the IDA's Division of Natural Resources, which has the principal responsibility for carrying out IDA's preservation mandate. Frank calls Executive Order No. 4 "the cornerstone of the state farm preservation policy." The order enshrined as policy the kind of isolated reforms which a few state agencies had adopted independently. IDOT, for example, had already revised its highway design criteria so as to take less rural land, by reducing the number and size of interchanges and by expanding existing roads in existing rights-of-ways (as is planned along U.S. 51) rather than building new roads on newly purchased land nearby.


Enrolling the private sector


The governor's order affected only the public sector, however, and only one part of the public sector at that. The fight against farmland conversion by the private sector was taken up in the General Assembly. The legislature in 1979 passed the Agricultural Areas Conservation and Protection Act (P.A. 81-1173) which, along with local zoning laws, is preservationists' principal weapon. The "ag areas" act was passed with prodding by the Illinois Farm Bureau and is similar to laws in a half-dozen other states. It authorizes a farmer or farmers to voluntarily form an agricultural area (minimum size: 500 acres). Land in such an area may not be assessed for any special local taxes nor be subject to any "nuisance laws" intended to restrict farm operations (although it is not protected against eminent domain). If approved by the county board, such areas may stand for ten years and are renewable every eight years, and a farmer may withdraw his land from the area at any time without penalty. To date, eight ag areas have been formed in Illinois, which together comprise roughly 25,000 acres in six counties.


The act has been criticized as weak, since participation is voluntary, a concession to the enormous resistance to regulation among farmers. Although voluntary, the act is defended by the spokesman for the Illinois Farm Bureau, whose director of government affairs has said that the bureau "does not agree that the act does not have teeth in it."


Jim Frank, however, prefers that some financial incentive be given to farmers to encourage their participation, although he concedes that such incentives are unlikely to be authorized in the current economic climate. At the same time, Frank favors financial penalties for withdrawal of land from an area. "Also, perhaps we ought to require erosion control plans on lands to be entered in ag areas," Frank says. "It doesn't make sense to give land special protections intended to keep up agricultural productivity if that land is losing soil at three or four times its tolerance limit."


But even if penalties for withdrawal were established in Illinois, there is no guarantee that ag areas legislation is the cure for conversion. If penalties are made too severe, landowners near developing areas will avoid joining ag areas in the first place; if penalties are more modest, the potential profit from development will render them painless, and thus ineffectual. The state with the oldest ag areas act is New York. Enacted in 1971, it offers greater protection than Illinois’s act, but the NALS concluded New York's act has proven "relatively ineffective in reducing the rate of conversion."


States have other options open to them besides ag areas. But they also tend to be ineffective, too costly or (in the case of those which interfere with rights as understood by landowners or local governments) politically unacceptable. One such option is differential tax assessment for farmland. Illinois has used such a system since 1972. At the request of its owner, farmland may be assessed according to a formula which establishes its worth as farmland separate from its market value. The original aim of the program was to reduce farmland conversion in the Chicago suburbs by reducing farmers' property tax loads, although it has subsequently been expanded into a program of general tax relief for farmers.


But the effect of differential tax assessment on farmland conversion has been minor, in Illinois as elsewhere. Some states make such tax breaks conditional upon the owner's pledge to keep land in farms; if an owner converts it to a non-farm use, he must pay back all or part of the taxes thus saved, and sometimes an additional penalty as well. Such "rollbacks" seldom match the profits to be made from development, however, and thus are flimsy barriers to conversion.


Another approach is the purchase by the state of development rights to farmland. Under such a program (pioneered by New York's Suffolk County on Long Island in the mid-1970s) the state would pay a farmer the difference between the value of his land as farm-land and its developed value, thus re-moving the financial incentive to convert it to non-farm uses. Ownership of the land itself remains in the hands of the farmer, along with the responsibility for maintenance and the payment of local taxes. Unfortunately, the purchase of development rights is expensive, especially in a state the size of Illinois. Suffolk County has committed itself to the purchase of development rights on 15,000 acres at a total cost of $90 million; at that price, the cost of protecting just half the Illinois farmland converted each year would run to $300 million annually.


McHenry County's answer


Of course, the state can affect preservation practices as much by what it allows as by what it does. Under the Illinois Constitution, local units of government are invested with the authority for planning and zoning. Zoning is by far the most common farmland preservation tool, both in Illinois and the nation. (Of 395 preservation programs in use by state, county, and municipal governments, the NALS found that 270, or 69 percent, were zoning programs by counties and municipalities.)


The possibilities of zoning for agriculture have been demonstrated in McHenry County, "the frontier of the farmland preservation issue" in Illinois, according to one farm bureau official. Perched precariously on Chicago's raveling urban fringe, McHenry was Illinois’s second fastest-growing county between 1970 and 1980, increasing in population by nearly a third to 147,724, and, local farm groups began to worry that farmland was being eroded by urban outwash from the city. Farmers in McHenry had no interest in joining their neighbors in nearby DuPage County on the list of endangered species.


The county's development regulations favored developers, as such regulations generally do, but in 1979 the McHenry County board adopted a set of growth objectives in conjunction with a land-use plan that declared that agriculture was a vital part of the local economic base. The latter was a necessary policy statement, since the courts have upheld zoning laws restricting the use of private land only when it can be demonstrated that the laws were invoked consistently in pursuit of a clearly stated public interest.


The McHenry County land-use plan encouraged the development of existing vacant land within municipalities as an alternative to building on farmland outside municipalities. As a protection against nuisance suits, it asserted the right of farmers to use land zoned for agriculture for agriculture. It allowed residential construction in agricultural zones, but only on those parts of such zones officially deemed unsuitable for agricultural use. The county board also set minimum lot sizes for residential development in such zones. This is common practice nationally; rather than try to make subdivisions illegal, planners sought to make them unprofitable.


McHenry County also has approved one ag area under the state's ag areas act and is reviewing four more. As McHenry County planner Steve Aradas explains, "Ag districts and ag zoning reinforce each other, because zoning makes it harder to get land in ag districts changed to non-ag uses."


The county's ag preservation program thus is both aggressive and comprehensive and is rooted in a broader land-use program. That it is not perfect probably ought to have been expected. Where they have been tried elsewhere, for example, minimum lot sizes of as large as five acres have proved insufficiently bulky to stem housing construction in the countryside, and in fact actually have made rural sprawl even sprawlier in many areas. McHenry County has gradually boosted its own minimum lot requirement to slow sales of such mini-estates, from the original one-half acre to one-and-one-half acres, then to five acres, and most recently to an extraordinary 160 acres.


Nevertheless, the latest revised county development plan calls for McHenry County in the year 2000 to still be 70 percent rural but at the same time allows for the construction of housing for 100,000 new people and sets aside 5,600 acres for commercial development.


Land-use planning


Unfortunately, county-wide zoning like McHenry's remains a relative rarity in Illinois. Only about half the state's 102 counties have adopted some form of zoning regulations. In spite of lobbying by the Illinois Farm Bureau in favor of such regulations, much of the local opposition to county zoning continues to come from farmers. Rich Clemmons, the Illinois Farm Bureau's local government director, admitted in a November address that the state ag community "has not really met fully" the conflict between the protection of private property rights—including the right to sell farmland out of production—and the protection of farmland. This failure is not merely a philosophical problem. As Clemmons noted, zoning decisions are invariably political decisions. It is no accident that the Illinois counties which have the most restrictive ag zoning programs also have local farmers actively lobbying on their behalf.


Clyde Forrest, attorney and professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana, has described the body of Illinois’s land-use law as being in "a somewhat backward state." Land-use laws, says Forrest, are based on "the assumption that the purpose of planning is to deal with urban growth, and not land as a resource." At present the law protects ag land by barring local units of government from enacting zoning laws which prohibit agricultural uses. Forrest would prefer a clearer statement from the General Assembly that land-use controls could be used proactively for the preservation of ag land in urban areas.


Land-use planning and land-use control are largely separate issues under Illinois law. This separation of means from ends allows local units to regulate land use before they have decided why. Forrest notes that using agricultural zoning in the absence of a master plan, as many Illinois counties do, "makes it hard to argue that you know what you're doing from a public policy point of view," either to a landowner or, more likely, to a court.


It was in the hope of remedying what its sponsor called the "archaic nature of land resources management techniques" in Illinois that the General Assembly in 1980 established an Illinois Land Resources Management Study Commission. Headed by Forrest, the commission examined the causes and cures of both farmland conversion and urban sprawl. Predictably, the commission learned that government itself often contributed to both problems. In addition, it lamented the profusion of zoning and planning bodies (especially in the crowded Chicago area) whose jurisdictions often overlap and which contribute to what the commission called "intergovernmental impotence" in land-use planning.


Acknowledging that parallel work already was underway at the IDA, the commission's final report did not address directly the problem of farmland conversion. But virtually every aspect of planning and zoning practice affects farmland ultimately. Annexation law is a good example. McHenry County's Steve Aradas believes that the original zoning classification of a given parcel of land should be required to be removed before a municipality could annex it; since such a zoning change would require county or city approval, this requirement would give counties a weapon with which to defend their territory against encroachment by expanding cities.


Complicated, archaic, or contradictory laws of this sort mean that local authorities in Illinois find it hard to preserve farmland, even when they want to. The commission endorsed a package of bills which would (among other things) coordinate decision-making among local units, expand the powers of such units over land use, make joint planning by adjacent units easier, standardize zoning procedures, and so on. Such measures, however, are given little chance of passage.


New concept of agriculture


Behind the mechanical flaws in Illinois’s land-use practices are conceptual ones. Before local officials can begin to act differently about farmland, they have to think differently about it. Says the IDA's Frank: "We haven't been successful at educating the legislature and the urban population generally about the importance of maintaining a viable agriculture. In the past, environmental impact statements have not looked at the economic value of agricultural production as a factor. If you multiply the annual value of crops that could be raised on a parcel of farmland vis-a-vis the amortized value of a new plant over 40 years, that plant usually looks like a piker."


But even if the public sector were to reform, what about the private sector? The fact is that there is no such thing as a truly private sector when it comes to land. Although government may directly account for a modest share of development, it influences the real estate market profoundly, if indirectly, through its zoning, planning, taxation, and public improvements policies. A recent U.S. General Accounting Office report of federal housing policies since 1935 offered a good example. By making new housing cheaper to build, federally subsidized mortgages have (as planners and land economists have been saying for years) done for the suburban ranch house what Johnny Appleseed did for apple trees.


Policy reviews of the sort required by USDA may curb the federal government's expansion habits. But Washington did not intend to destroy millions of acres of farmland. It did so accidentally, by pushing policies which had as their aim the advancement of some other interest such as housing or transportation, and it seems likely that it will stop destroying farmland in the same way.


Cutbacks in funding for capital projects are likely to do as much to slow extension of urban services to rural areas as any executive order, and Illinois experts attribute an apparent leveling off in the rate of farmland conversion since 1978 to high interest rates which have stymied new home construction. Says Aradas, "More agricultural land has been saved by high interest rates, OPEC and the pill than by anything we've done." It is important to remember that local officials have begun to advocate strategies for more compact development not because of the cost in lost farmland, but because the cost in new services such as sewer mains is srunning at some $200,000 a mile. And Congress, faced with a seemingly un-balanceable budget, has even considered a cap of $5,000 on federal income tax deductions for home mortgage interest payments, as well as the possible elimination of deductions for property tax payments. Either change would make new houses much more expensive and thus presumably would result in fewer of them being built. After decades of doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, Washington may be beginning to do the right thing for the wrong reasons.


In the meantime, the state and its local governmental subdivisions will remain in the role of firemen rushing to put out fires ignited by someone else. Since 1978 they have become marginally better equipped for the job, and conversion pressures at the moment are slight. To combat a conflagration of the scale which is likely to follow resumption of large-scale building, Illinois will need either to spend a lot more money purchasing development rights or awarding tax incentives or it will need to adopt rigorous, even mandatory, land-use controls of the sort common in Europe. Neither seems likely, at least not until that not-too-distant morning when Illinoisans awake to find (as Jim Frank phrases it) that their farmland is "either under concrete or down at the delta." ●


Sidebar: Wisconsin leads in farmland preservation


Illinois agriculture officials agree that their state's current farmland preservation program is pretty good, considering. Gov. James R. Thompson's executive order of July 1980 requiring program reviews of key state agencies has been widely studied, even copied in other states. But those officials also admit that the best such program belongs to Wisconsin.


The Wisconsin Farmland Preservation Act became law in 1977. The program is innovative mainly in the ways it combines traditional land-use techniques, tying state tax relief for farm owners with the adoption by local governments of agricultural preservation plans and exclusive agricultural zoning ordinances. Farmers who wish to participate must enter into a contract with the state, voluntarily restricting their land to agricultural uses for a specified term of up to 25 years. In return, those farmers are granted a credit against their state income taxes. These credits are computed according to a formula which takes into account both farm income and property taxes: the higher the property taxes as a percentage of income, the greater the credit. These "circuit-breaker" credits thus are progressive, with larger credits going to farmers with the lowest income and tittle if any going to the high-income, non-farm investor.


In addition, the act requires that after 1982, farm owners may continue to qualify for the credits only if the local governments adopt either agricultural preservation plans or exclusive ag zoning. In rural counties, adoption of a preservation plan makes those farmers under contract within a preservation area eligible for 70 percent of the allowable credits. Similarly, implementation of exclusive ag zoning qualifies participating farmers whose land is thus zoned for 70 percent of the credit. Adoption by the county of both a preservation plan and exclusive ag zoning, however, qualifies all farmers, with or without contracts, to 100 percent of the allowable credits. In urban counties, ag zoning ordinances must be in effect for farm owners to remain eligible for the credits.


Tax credits are the carrot. The stick takes the form of a "rollback" penalty if a farm owner withdraws land from the program. In that event he is liable for payment of up to 10 years' worth of tax credits.


By tying the continuation of tax credits to the adoption of preservation policies, the Wisconsin program deftly links private interest to public policy by creating a local lobby for preservation. The program's success has surprised even state officials. As of July 31, 1981, approximately 14,750 farms comprising nearly 3.1 million acres had qualified for credits. Those tax credits totaled $10 million in 1980, averaging roughly $1,600 per farm. In addition, an estimated 90 percent of the state's farmland is covered by some form of preservation or zoning program; 60 of the state's 72 counties are preparing preservation plans, and 17 are at least partially covered by exclusive ag zoning. Perhaps most encouraging of all, according to James A. Johnson, director of the program, is the fact that most of the new zoning ordinances are being implemented in those parts of the state under the most intense development pressure. Noting that the bulk of the tax credits are going to farmers in urbanizing areas, Johnson concludes, "The program really seems to be targeted where it's most needed." ●




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

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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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