Illinois Prairie Pollinator Rain Garden at the Kane County Farm Bureau, Saint Charles.

Located 45 miles west of Chicago’s Millennium Park, Kane is Illinois’ fifth most populated county and the Land of Lincoln’s leader for proactive land use planning to support agriculture. 

Three decades ago, Kane County leaders watched suburban sprawl transform neighboring DuPage County. The Kane County Development Department director then referred to DuPage as “our living laboratory to the east.”  

A 1991 DuPage County Planning Department study had quantified the spiraling costs of services and infrastructure resulting from the replacement of farmland with concrete, asphalt, and rooftops. Its conclusion? Suburban growth does not “pay for itself.” 

Those unexpected findings brought national attention to the high cost of suburban sprawl, including a story in The Wall Street Journal. For a brief moment, metropolitan Chicago could have sparked a national conversation on whether unchecked suburban expansion is really the best way to “grow.”  Regional analysis might have even drawn the connection to a cost that the DuPage County study didn’t consider—the human toll of urban disinvestment.

Instead, newspaper real estate sections helped suppress the DuPage experience. But not before Kane County decided to find a different way to grow along the western banks of the Fox River.

In 2001, Kane became the first Midwest county to establish a farmland preservation program that buys conservation easements from interested farmers. Over the last two decades, a casino enterprise provided $20 million in grants. This local match enabled the county to secure $13 million in USDA funding.   

That $33 million paid farmers to keep the land in agriculture and forego their “development rights.” Today, Kane County has 6,000 acres of farmland under easement, and 1,000 acres in progress (see video).

The 2013 “Growing for Kane” ordinance provides a mechanism for programs to help increase the supply of locally grown food. The county has partnered with growers for such activities as farm field days, workshops, healthy eating programs, and business trainings. Other county partners include American Farmland Trust and The Conservation Fund. 

In 2010, the Kane County Board became the first in Illinois to establish an agriculture committee.  

“The biggest benefit of the county agriculture committee was to get the Farm Bureau involved,” recalls T.R. Smith, the county board committee’s first chair.  “Farm Bureau has become an important conduit between farmers and the Kane County government.” 

Smith stepped down from the county board in 2019 after three terms in office. He remains active in a western Kane County drainage district serving the watershed where he raises corn and soybeans. 

“Drainage districts put the emphasis on problem solving by farmers at the local level,” explains Smith, a retired Cook County Sheriff’s detective. “Local funding is used to keep ditches clear. Otherwise, Kane County farm fields would fill up with standing water and our farmers would be growing rice.”

Smith contends the rules of the development game favor continued suburbanization of the county. Yet, its long-standing commitment to agriculture makes Kane County a model for sustainable growth in metropolitan Chicago and throughout the State of Illinois.  

Story by Bob Heuer—director of HNA Networks, an Evanston-based consultancy that helps organizations navigate the intersection of food, farming, and regional economies.

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