ALBION — Around a dozen community members from varying occupations attended the Consumer Ag Institute Wednesday to learn about food, farms and everything in between. 

The day began at the Edwards County Farm Bureau, where Mike Wilson of Wabash Valley Service Company spoke about the importance of agriculture to the region and to Illinois.

Edwards County used to be the leading livestock producing county in the state, per square mile, Wilson said.

"Times change, things change," he said. "Today, Lawrence County is actually the most diverse livestock producing county in the state."

Poultry, beef, hogs, horses, goats and even commercial ostrich and emu are produced in Lawrence County.

"The one thing we have in the U.S. that they don't have in a lot of places in the world is food abundance, and that's because we do a really good job producing it — abundant food that is very safe, and very healthy," Wilson said. 

Wilson continued to said that the United States has the lowest rate of food borne illnesses of any developed country. 

"Through my job I've been to South America, Africa — I've been to the second poorest country in the world," he said. "They don't have near the abundance we have, they don't have refrigeration, they don't have food prep, they don't have a lot of the things we have."

While there may be an abundance of food here, there is also an abundance of myths and skepticisms regarding the way it's produced, Wilson said.

"You see a sprayer, and that's a negative connotation for a lot of people — and that's the most ridiculous thing in the world," he said. "There is nothing more regulated in the U.S. today than what that piece of equipment is doing."

Wilson discussed the ways farmers and others are working to reduce the amount of nitrates and phosphates used in fertilizers, which when used in excess, can potentially be harmful to the environment. 

"We want to maintain food production with the least amount of environmental impact," he said.

Myths also circulate around food labels and ingredients. Wilson shared a few of the common misconceptions that the group would continue to learn about later in the day. Gluten-free, GMO-free and USDA Organic are labels printed on several food products, but not everyone knows the meaning behind them.

"Gluten-free is a big buzz word with the hipster community today and I can tell you right now a gluten free diet is not a healthy diet. Gluten is in every single cereal grain," Wilson said. 

Wilson continued to say that gluten-free products are made for people who suffer from Celiac Disease, an autoimmune disease.

Genetically modified organisms (GMO) crops have also been negatively stigmatized.

"We have been genetically modifying crops since the pharaohs were entombed in the pyramids," Wilson said. "Nothing we eat today is even similar to what that plant looked like 1,000 years ago. Brussel sprouts, rutabaga, cauliflower, kale and others all come from the very same native plant and were bred in different ways to produce different edible vegetables."

In 2016, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that genetically engineered crops are safe for humans and animals and have not caused an increase in cancer, obesity, gastrointestinal illnesses, kidney disease, autism or allergies.

After learning about local food and how it's grown, participants traveled to Broster Farms in West Salem, Illinois. There they were met by the Broster family and Dmitri Krajac of Wabash Valley Service Company.

Krajac demonstrated how the evolution of technology can improve the way we farm with a drone camera. The flying drone was able to fly over Broster Farms and map the area in several different ways, including elevation.

Drones can be used to find crop weaknesses or even crop loss after flooding like the area experienced earlier this month.

Father and son duo Chad and Allen Broster shared information about their farm, including how corn is produced and what industries use their corn. The group toured the towering grain facility and viewed a sprayer while there.

Lunch was held at Wabash County Farm Bureau, where Whitney Buckles of Fairfield Memorial Hospital provided more information regarding GMOs, organic food and gluten-free.

The afternoon was spent at Stumpy Hill Hog Farm, where the group donned white suits and experienced an in depth tour regarding hog production with speaker Bryan Roosevelt.

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