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Will County Agricultural Sustainability & Conservation Initiative (Will-CASCI)

Build a multi-stakeholder, public-private partnership to promote Will South-Cook’s SWCD healthy, green, fair, affordable food & farm economy

Photo of Judy Ogalla
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Will-South Cook Soil and Water Conservation District

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Government

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

Will South-Cook Soil and Water Conservation District – Local unit of government Will County Farm Bureau – Farmer Business Organization South Metropolitan Higher Education Consortium (SMHEC) – Collaboration of Educational Institutions Following are citizen groups who support agriculture and oppose paving over it: STAND (Shut This Airport Nightmare Down) – OTHER No Illiana 4 Us - OTHER Just Say No To NorthPoint - OTHER

Website of Legally Registered Entity

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 10+ years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

New Lenox, IL

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Will County and southern Cook County in Illinois

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

The WSCSWCD, Will-South Cook Soil & Water Conservation District’s boundary, the partnerships we maintain, & the regional pressures to build commercial & industrial complexes make it the ideal Place for our Food Systems Vision.

Our northern boundary is the city of Chicago’s 22nd Street; it then weaves through the south side of Chicago & south suburbs of Cook County to the Indiana state line. It encompasses all of Will County where 40 percent of land use is agricultural.

A local unit of government with an elected board and a small staff, we meet regularly to formulate and administer a program tailored specifically to the conservation and protection of the District’s natural resources. Our mission established through state/federal legislation began in the 1930’s Dust Bowl era.

SWDCs operate on a shoe-string budget and rely on volunteer help to promote soil conservation, water quality, nutrient management, and sustainable land use.

Our core constituency is farmers who raise row crops. These farmers view their “customers” as grain elevators that sell farm commodities to local & global markets. By contrast, the local food movement is investing their consumer dollar in “know your farmer” transactions.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Will County is located in the northeastern part of Illinois, on the southern edge of metropolitan Chicago which was built atop some of the world’s most fertile soils.

In recent decades, suburban developers set their sights on Will County. Today only 40% of Will County’s land is dedicated to farming purposes.

The quick-buck economics of real estate market lead many policymakers to see no scalable way to maintain farmland’s enduring value as a renewable resource.  “We’ve got to figure out how to make places more livable where people already are, to lessen the urge to escape and lessen demand for suburban sprawl,” IL Gov. Jim Edgar said in 1990s. His administration then approved plans to build a 30-square-mile airport in the eastern Will County.

Residents of eastern Will County opposed the idea of an airport. They organized community groups that fought against the airport at every level of government.  That fight continues today, as the state of IL has bought 6.5 square miles of farmland for the proposed airport. A generation ago, boosters claimed airport would create 236,000 “immediate” jobs. Boosters now push plans for a downsized airport to complement the sub-regional goods distribution/logistics sector that’s paving over southwestern Will County.

Over the past 3 decades many people chose to move to Will County. They sought the open space it offered escaping areas of mass urbanization and pollution making it one of the fastest growing counties in the country. Now many of them are fighting similar development problems like those in eastern Will County. Southwestern Will County has become an area of mass over-development of inter modal facilities and logistic warehouses. They struggle with the noise and air pollution on a daily basis. Many fear for their safety while driving roads that were once used only by locals but are now packed with semi trucks.

The farm families want to continue farming the land, while local food groups and environmental groups understand and support the value of farmland and the ecosystem it can provide for future generations.

Farmers in Will County have incorporated the conservation practices encouraged by the Will South-Cook Soil and Water Conservation District. They are beginning to diversify what they produce to meet the current demand for local foods. Many take their produce to inner-city farm markets to answer the need of the food deserts that exist. With the new technology available to farmers they are now able to produce more on the same land mass than years ago.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Will County’s challenge is to change the economics driving ever-outward sub-urbanization. Propping up this American way of life is a constellation of commercial interests—a vast civic-industrial complex. Support comes from the Will County Municipal League and Will County Center for Economic Development (CED).

In 2006, a CED official took part in a study on the containerized grain export market forming around a new freight rail port.  Specialty grains offered the best bet to fill the millions of containers returning empty to the Pacific Rim for more consumer imports.

The CED official said economic developers and the farm sector need to collaborate. Those conversations don’t happen in a sustained way.

“Market forces” drive plans for another business park.  A Will County agricultural plan could include turning that rail port into an export hub for organic crops.

Growing public interest in agriculture’s viability is a byproduct of the local food movement.  The opportunity is teed up to reshape how U.S. urban, suburban, exurban, and rural communities interact, interrelate, and develop.

Since the Republic’s founding, expanding populations have led U.S. agriculture to operate in a state of permanent geographic retreat. “Agri-flight” is part of our food and agriculture industrial sector. Corporate consolidation has driven efficiencies and sparked a backlash.

Consumer demand to know the source of one’s food is driving a marketplace redesign to shorten the geographic distance between farm and fork for many products.

Technology: Improving crops/livestock production, and facilitating local market access.  Measurements of carbon storage and filtration of pollutants could drive ecosystem service credit markets to boost per-acre earnings.  Perhaps that metric informs behavior at point-of-sale purchase.  Consumers benefit from myriad apps and blogs.

Policy/culture: Food/ag policy at all levels of government results from a shift in culture.  An interim step is strategic use of the convening power of government to stimulate a new market force.

Environment, Diets, & Economics: Consumer demand is driving a marketplace redesign to shorten the geographic distance between farm and fork for many products. Will-CASCI aims to unify disparate voices advocating for system reform into a market force of four key constituencies—the Greens, Healthies,  Fairs and Affordables.

Conservation/environmental communities have long promoted natural resource stewardship. Support may come from three food system newcomers.

Public health community wants nutritious food.

Work force advocates want improved living standard for supply chain participants.

Social equity community wants good food more available to low-income people.

A dialogue process can, in effect, encourage the Healthies, Greens, Fairs and Affordables to order lunch from the same menu.

 The consequence—clearer market signals—will spark a healthy, green, fair and affordable food economy that redefines the value of an acre of Will County farmland.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Will-CASCI’s 2-tier, community-organizing project is advancing local, county, state & federal policies supporting the growth/development of an exurban agricultural business program.

The productive capacity of urban-edge farming is the springboard to both grow supply for regional food market channels and to drive public policy supporting community-based food, nutrition and agricultural programming.

Tier 1 begins with a public information campaign to promote alignment of food and agricultural supply networks with demand as articulated by the collective voices of Healthy, Green, Fair and Affordable constituencies. Tier 1 will build capacity for collaboration between local partners: WSCSWCD, Will County Farm Bureau, SMHEC, WCRSN and business innovators like Iroquois Valley Farmland REIT(an organic real estate investment trust).

Tier 2 begins with a financial sector advisory task force to align grants, investment, & debt to support the program.  Self-Help Venture Fund, a Community Development Financial Institution, is the first entity to agree to participate. To ensure transparency, task force activities will unfold on a public platform—perhaps CMAP’s Environment & Natural Resources Committee.

Global financial markets are creating definitions/standards for “climate bonds” replicating how LEEDS certification brings energy efficiency to the building sector.  Regionally financed food/watershed investment funds may be the way to pool capital starting with at least two initiatives:

Public health bureaucracies are developing plans to harness institutional market buying power to enact City of Chicago/Cook County “Good Food Purchasing” policies.

Comprehensive food system financing policy can be the linchpin for the holistic community development framework envisioned by the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus’ Greenest Region Compact (GRC).  GRC has won adoption from 126 municipalities and three counties in this region.  Despite lip service to circular economy concepts, GRC land use policy remains stuck on 20th century economic development values and practices.

 Will-CASCI is building a network of constituencies who have never before been brought together on collaboration to a shared commitment to northeastern Illinois.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

The Will South-Cook SWCD has breathed life into the dream that “tiny but mighty” programs can spark the transformation of U.S. food and agriculture systems to meet 21st century needs.  Building on a legal foundation established in the 1930s Dust Bowl era, Illinois’ SWCDs are recognized for having jump started the development of STAR ”Saving Tomorrow’s Agriculture Resources”, into a well-resourced national program.  SWCDs are widely valued as local governmental bodies facilitating broad-based public-private partnerships needed to make clean water/healthy soil an organizing principle for America’s climate-smart political economy.

Will County residents take pride in the fact that the last 30 years saw less farmland loss than in the previous 40 years.  Food and agriculture are accepted as an investable part of community infrastructure—like water, schools and transportation systems.  The diversified ag system includes food and meat processing plants that create better paying jobs than 2020 warehousing projects could have offered. The economic development apparatus embraces the higher value of “value added” agricultural practices that leverage an ecosystem services credit market to generate benefits to all areas of the economy.

Will-CASCI’s motto is still “think big, start small and stay solvent”.  A 2020 local planning process leveraged CMAP’s ON TO 2050 plan and fueled regional collaboration.  The four-state Lake Michigan Basin undertook food/watershed planning pilots that informed landmark policy and program enacted through the 2023 federal Farm Bill.

Comprehensive financing solutions underwrite a nationwide network of regional-scale healthy, green, fair and affordable food and farm economies.  A generation of American children has been taught the connection between healthy food, exercise, wellness and learning.  Youthful entrepreneurship is a building block for fully-functioning, neighborhood-based farming systems.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

January 31, 2050

Residents meeting at the Will South Cook Soil and Water Conservation District office stumble upon an application written exactly 30 years ago to the day. They knew about Will-CASCI but not how its work took off in 2020 through the process of submitting an application to Rockefeller Foundation for a Food System Vision Prize.

The Will South-Cook SWCD’s office is still located amidst the flat and fertile farm fields of south central Will County. Over the last three decades, the population of New Lenox increased from 27,000 in 2020 to nearly 45,000 residents today.

They marveled at the backward thinking that would have equated “progress” with paving over all of Will County’s farmland.  How obvious Will CASCI’s success looks in retrospect. Of course, the foundation for rebuilding the farm and food system is through public-private partnerships advancing a clean water/healthy soil mission. A diverse group of people collaborating in ways they’d never done before unlocked the human ingenuity needed to repurpose farmland near metropolitan population centers as a resource to feed those people.

Will-CASCI launched January 8, 2020 with a presentation before the monthly board meeting of the Will South-Cook SWCD. The 30 attendees included farmers with deep roots to the area and representatives of community groups fighting various anti-agricultural, real estate development projects.  Members from a Will County sustainability network, WCRSN/SMHEC attended.  So did three Will County Board Members—two Republicans and one Democrat. A journalist representing a community newspaper and another from the farm press. A member of SMHEC, Joliet Junior College sustainability committed to the Vision on the spot because of Vision focus for a “healthy, green fair and affordable food economy.”

After submitting the Vision Prize, Will-CASCI launched a public information campaign that started a regional conversation about the hidden value of metropolitan Chicago’s agricultural economy. Their initial aim was to build understanding, investment and policy support for an alternative growth plan along the outskirts of southern suburbs. They called it “Plan B for Peotone”—a reference to a public works project that had begun making less and less sense from the time the idea of a massive regional airport was first floated in 1968.

Plan B for Peotone caught fire. Constituencies who supported the region’s five airports were quick to rally around a strategy to pull the plug on Peotone.

Will-CASCI had gotten started with nominal seed funds from two organizations: Will South Cook SWCD (a local unit of government) and the Will County Farm Bureau (a local affiliate of the Illinois Farm Bureau and American Farm Bureau Federation).

At the time the Vision began the majority of the farmland in the area and throughout northeastern Illinois was used to raise row crops. At that time corn and soybean growers viewed their “customers” as grain elevators that brokered the sale of farm commodities using local and global marketing channels.

To protect farmland from suburban development and meet the needs of the Local Food movement at the time, the Will-CASCI team recognized the need to engage the broader community. To do that, they needed to engage like minded organizations to overcome the many challenges they faced. They collaborated with formal organizations that included the Sierra Club, Openlands, Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), Illinois Stewardship Alliance, Illinois Farmers Market Association, and Self-Help Federal Credit Union. They joined forces with community activist groups that no longer exist today, Shut This Airport Nightmare Down, No Illiana 4 Us, and Just Say No to NorthPoint.

Will-CASCI invited participation from all sectors.  The public private partnership attracted support.  Many investors, people looking to park their capital in socially responsible endeavors took a liking to the idea of reformulating the farm economy around triple bottom line generating economic, environmental and social returns. Buy in came to figure out how to redefine the value of tens of thousands of acres of northeastern Illinois farmland.  The idea of a renewable resource, and a regenerative ag economy caught on in an era when the impact of a changing climate was shaking up the existing economic order.

The partnership spearheaded a new kind of dialogue that brought together community groups with the business sector, non profits and the educational sector. The financial sector had a seat at the table too.  The thinking was we have to get the underlying economics right. Tap the intellectual capital of the money people. Let’s put together a recipe with the right ingredients before we put the cake batter in the oven.

Funding commitments were made. And then they learned they’d been selected as a winner of one of the Rockefeller Vision prizes. One way or the other, they had been pleased to have even gone through the thought exercise. Winning the prize was, well, icing on the cake.

Will-CASCI co-leads

Judy Ogalla, Republican, Will County Board member & Minority Whip moderated that Jan. 8, 2020 meeting. The main presenter was Bob Heuer, Democrat and public policy consultant who lived 60 miles away from Will County in north suburban Evanston.

Judy and Bob first met 30 years prior. It was the early 1990s.They both were participants in a public interest built campaign formed in opposition to the state of Illinois’ plans to pave over Will County’s farmland by building an airport.

As the only farmer elected to serve on the 26-member Will County Board, Judy was well-known in local political circles as an advocate for agriculture. Her husband is a row-crop farm in eastern Will County and board member of Will-South Cook SWCD.

Bob headed a consultancy Heuer Network Associates. HNA draws on Bob’s sustainable development finance policy expertise drew on his experience as a journalist and an independent consultant helping organizations navigate the intersection of food, farming and regional economies.

Bob was fluent in Spanish.  This experience helped him communicate with the immigrant population that filled the employment needs of the agriculture business. It also helped him serve as a cultural translator who could figure out how to find common ground among diverse constituencies.

Bob also served as chair of the Climate Action Team for the Democratic Party of Evanston.  He had written the organization’s policy and led its campaign to encourage youth participation in the political process through municipal level climate action and resilience plans. Previously, he had represented the Evanston/Skokie public schools as a gubernatorial appointee to the Illinois Local Food Farms and Jobs Council. 

Will-CASCI’s formula for success

The Will-CASCI team drew on the knowledge and alliances of the groups and organizations the collaborated with.  They saw a need to build a bridge between established farmers who generated a wealth of agricultural commodities for global markets, and smaller-scale farmers trying to meet the demand for locally sourced products.

 Economic interests were organized to look at farmland and see it as a means to generate higher tax dollars.  Will County farmland was under threat of being paved over to build new intermodal freight facilities, business parks, warehouses and that crazy airport plan.

Will-CASCI team was up against immeasurable odds. But they were determined to ensure future generations would benefit from their work and enjoy nutritional foods for generations to come.

One group that seemed to not buy in were the local labor unions. In the end they learned a pro-Ag/pro-local foods movement was a win-win for them.

With time and the involvement of all the collaborating groups a strong message was heard and the policy makers began to listen. Consumers at the time also provided the support needed to bring the local food system to the forefront by demanding the accessibility and affordability of local, naturally or organically grown foods for their families.

Systems Focused Approach

Will-CASCI replicates the collaborative methods of the Illinois Local Food Farms and Jobs Council created by a 2009 state law to facilitate growth/development of a local food system. This state level plan to decentralize the economy didn’t gain traction. The approach is better suited to be tested at the local level.

Transformative Potential

Pulling together Healthies, Greens, Fairs and Affordable around a food system financing plan is intended to spark “market forces” strong enough to check endless suburban expansion.

Community rooted

Core partnerships are local people finding a shared mission through the common denominator of food.


Collaborative approaches make every conversation a means to learn, connect and try to give more than one would want to take.

1 comment

Join the conversation:

Photo of michael akande

Hi Judy,
I thoroughly enjoyed reading about your vision. There are a number of similarities with my vision and I got some new ideas/possibilities from yours that I hope to implement to mine in the future. Best of Luck