From the time it was settled in the late 1820s, Kendall County’s geographical location has had both its positives and its negatives.
Claiming land 40 miles west of Chicago that was located on the shoreline of Lake Michigan, the farmer-pioneers who settled the county’s rich prairie found the fast-growing city’s market for grain and livestock an economic boon. Chicago was close enough that cattle and other livestock could be driven there within a couple days. The county’s farmers were able, in fact, to create personal relationships with such prime movers of the meat industry as Phillip Armour. And in the 20 years before rail lines pushed west, the city was also within realistic grain hauling distance.
But the county’s location also posed some negatives, especially for those more interested in business than farming. Oswego, in the northeast corner of the county, was never able to grow its small two-block business district because of its proximity to Aurora, just six miles away. Aurora, with its large downtown business district fueled by heavy industry and the shops of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad, drew enough business north to keep the village’s retail district from growing. Those effects only worsened when the Ottawa, Oswego, and Fox River Valley Rail Road opened in 1870 linking the coal fields south of Ottawa with Fox Valley towns as far north as Geneva. The advent of the interurban trolley, and completion of the line running from downtown Aurora through downtown Oswego to downtown Yorkville made the situation worse.
The effects of the county’s location was to keep it almost entirely rural with the business of its scattered hamlets, villages, and towns aimed at supporting the farms that surrounded them. That 125-year era ended in the 1950s when Caterpillar Tractor Company built a sprawling plant in Oswego Township that eventually employed some 7,000 people and the manufacturing arm of AT&T expanded an old wallpaper factory, also in Oswego Township, to make electronic communications equipment. Those factories made an already-existing post World War II housing shortage in the area worse, prompting the area’s first sustained population growth since the Civil War. It didn’t take people elsewhere in the Chicago metro region long to decide Kendall County’s bucolic landscape was an inviting place to raise families. That first growth spurt of the late 1950s and 1960s, was joined by further growth eras culminating in the early 2000s when Kendall County, in percentage terms, was the fastest growing county in the United States.
For the 40 years from the 1970s through the first decade of the 2000s, the county grew housing and retail developments at a dizzying rate, as once productive farmland changed from growing crops to growing homes and businesses. The area’s explosive growth took a breather with the Great Recession of 2008 when the world’s economic system was nearly wrecked by the greed and illegal activities of the financial services industry.
The effect of all of that, along with profound changes in agriculture itself, had a not inconsiderable impact on farming in Kendall County, something I’ve been watching for decades now.
As a statistical measure of those changes, every five years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture conducts a farm census, with the last one completed in 2017. And with five years having passed since then, farmers and ranchers all over the U.S. got packets of surveys in June asking for information about their operations for the latest farm census.
That last ag census, taken back in 2017, reported a host of facts about Kendall County and that continuing change from an almost entirely rural area to a community that seems to be growing more and more homes and shopping centers than row crops every year.
Some of the census information confirmed overall trends that have been continuing over the past several decades, while others suggested the farm scene itself is changing. Not all that change has been negative, either. For instance, the census reported that, as of 2017 at least, Kendall County farms were overwhelmingly still in the hands of families and not corporations. A total of 92 percent of the county’s ag land was in the hands of family farms, the census reported.
On the other hand, there were interesting changes to report along with some more predictable information. Two county farms, for instance, reported raising emus, not exactly the usual kind of poultry you’d perhaps expect to find out here on the northern Illinois prairie.
Other statistics in the report contained trends both continuing and interrupted. The number of Kendall County farms continued to decline, reaching a new all-time low of just 313. That’s nearly 100 fewer farms than the 412 the census reported in 2002 and 773 fewer farms than existed here in 1950.
But while the number of farms declined, the size of the remaining farms continued to increase as consolidation in the agriculture sector—even among family farms—continued. In 2017, the average Kendall County farm covered 419 acres. In 2012, Kendall County farms averaged 356 acres, and back in 1950 when modern farming was on the cusp of major changes in farm use philosophy, the average farm here was just 180 acres.
The trend of more and more ag land turning into housing and business developments, however, took a breather in 2017. The census numbers suggested the housing market crash of 2008 had an impact on the previously steady repurposing of farmland. For the first time since 1987—the result of another economic downturn—land was apparently returned to agriculture production instead of being used for development. According to census statistics, a little over 8,000 acres were put back into crop production between 2012 and 2017.
Even with that pause, the value of Kendall’s farmland continued to rise, going up 4.3 percent from 2012, reaching a record average of $9,059 an acre, the 2017 census reported.
Likewise, the value of farm homes and buildings continued to increase along with the land on which they sit. In 2017, the value of the average Kendall County farm’s land and buildings stood at nearly $4 million, a 29 percent increase over those same values in 2012.
The census counts farm producers these days—at one time called farm operators—and they found 548 of them in Kendall County. The department’s official definition of a producer is: “Persons or entities, including farmers, ranchers, loggers, agricultural harvesters and fishermen, that engage in the production or harvesting of an agricultural product.” Given that definition, it’s clear one farm can have more than one “operator,” and thus the change in nomenclature to producer.
The 2017 census reported 380 male farm producers, down almost 4 percent from 2012, while the number of female producers in 2017 was 168, up a hefty 15 percent over 2012.
Another trend that continued was the increasing number of Kendall County farm producers who work off the farm at least part of the time. Nearly 53 percent of the county’s farm producers reported working off the farm at least part of the time in 2017. That was the highest number in a quarter century.
While the county has lost a significant amount of farmland to development over the past several decades, there has been no corresponding decline in production. Modern hybrids and continually improving farming technology seem to be combining to offset the loss of Kendall County farmland to housing and commercial development. In 2002, 82 percent of the county was being farmed. By 2017, that number had decreased fairly sharply to 67 percent. But even with less land available to farm, crop yields had increased sharply. For instance, in 2002, county farmers produced 9,249,000 bushels of corn and 2,761,000 bushels of soybeans. But in 2017, with less land under cultivation, the county’s farmers produced a remarkable 13,780,000 bushels of corn, a 49 percent increase, and 3,122,000 bushels of soybeans, up 13 percent.
Kendall was also contributing to another interesting statewide agricultural trend: The increasing number of honeybee colonies on farms. In the 2012 ag census, 919 Illinois farms reported having honeybee colonies. The number nearly doubled in 2017, with 1,770 farms reporting colonies. In Kendall County, 14 farms reported having 296 honeybee colonies in 2017, with a bit over 10,000 pounds of honey collected during the previous year. The 2017 result was not an outlier, either. Between 2007 and 2012, the number of farms producing honey doubled statewide and here in Kendall County, the number of honeybee colonies increased by 65 percent.
While grain production was booming in 2017, the county’s livestock production continued it’s long-term decline. In 1950, during the heyday of diversified farming where each farm raised livestock as well as a variety of crops, 861 Kendall County farms reported having some beef cattle, 694 farms reported having at least one milk cow, and 741 farms reported raising hogs. The switch to specialized livestock or grain farming accelerated in the 1960s. And by the time the 2017 farm census was taken, with the switch to specialized grain or livestock farming, only 39 county farms reported having any beef cattle, only 1 reported owning milk cows, and 11 reported having hogs.
The switch away from raising livestock was also clearly evident in the sharp reduction in Kendall County acreage devoted to corn raised for silage to feed livestock as well as acreage devoted to pastureland. In 1950, county farmers raised 2,236 acres of corn for silage and had almost 24,000 acres devoted to pastureland. By 2017, county farmers only grew corn for silage on about 300 acres and only devoted about 1,600 acres to pastureland.
In 2017, Kendall County was still recovering from that near-total collapse of the world financial system driven by illegal and unethical practices of giant financial corporations. Recovery was slow, but by the time the 2020 U.S. Census was taken, population growth was already recovering in Kendall County, to the point that it was the fastest growing county in Illinois.
That’s why it will be so interesting to see what new information about the county farm scene this summer’s agricultural census will uncover.