By Tim Alexander
McLean County farmers are earning a reputation as the most prolific growers of corn and soybeans in the state and the nation.
For a second consecutive year, McLean has led all Illinois and U.S. counties in total production of both commodities with almost 71 million bushels of corn and 22 million bushels of soybeans harvested in 2022, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS).
“McLean County has consistently remained a number one or number two top producer of soybeans in the U.S., but for corn it’s rather rare,” said Mark Schleusener, Illinois state statistician for NASS. “Kossuth County in Iowa is larger, and it will consistently be the number one corn-producing county in the U.S. as they grow more acres there. But they didn’t get the timely rains (McLean County) had (in 2022).”
Rich soils a product of glacier
According to Rob Rhykerd, Illinois State University Department of Agriculture soil scientist, McLean County farmers are usually at the top of the state and nation for soybean and corn production as a result of the rich soils native to the area, the product of an ancient glacial that which covered the central and northern parts of the state.
“It all starts with the soil,” said Rykherd. ‘We’re really blessed. The way the soils were formed really put a lot of organic matter in our soil, but then also we don’t have a lot of rocks in our soil here. The Wisconsin Glacier came through here somewhere around 20,000 years ago and that brought a lot of glacial till material down here from Canada. Glacial till can have some rocks in it, but it also has a lot of nutrients such as calcium that are really important to our plants.”
Around 13,000 years ago, the Wisconsin Glacier receded from central Illinois, leaving the glacial till material behind at the surface of the soil, Rhykerd explained. At the same time, a receding Mississippi River left behind a thick layer of “loess” material — the silty topsoil native to central Illinois — that was carried windborne to central Illinois and elsewhere.
In McLean County, the loess material “blanket” lies up to 6 feet deep in soils. As a result, McLean County soils are relatively free of rocks and carry a surplus of nutrients compared with soils in many other areas of the state, the soil scientist explained.
“Our soil will hold a lot of plant-available water, which is one of the reasons we have such wonderful soils here. Another really important component of this is that after the loess blanket was formed, we got enough rainfall to support a forest ecosystem, and we ended up with a prairie here,” Rhykerd said.
“That’s really significant because of how much organic material that can end up in the soils. With a forest, you get a little bit of leaf litter that falls and decomposes at the surface, but (with prairies) you get a thick layer of organic matter, with a dense, fibrous root system that decomposes and provides a lot of plant-essential nutrients, while also holding a lot of water.”
Central Illinois farmers hold an advantage over western-states farmers because there is usually plenty of annual precipitation to encourage plant growth, Rhykerd added.
“Western state soils do not produce as much biomass due to the lack of rainfall,” he said. "We've kind of got the ideal situation here, a wonderful ecosystem compared to farmers further east say, in Indiana, where the loess blanket is much thinner and there are more forest soils.”
McLean farmland by the numbers
“As of 2017 (the most recent census of agriculture), McLean County had 2,242 producers and 1,416 farms, and 94% of the farms in our county are family owned and operated,” said Anna Ziegler, assistant manager for the McLean County Farm Bureau (MCFB).
Ziegler added that McLean County is the county with the largest land area in Illinois (1,186 square miles), with about 82% of the county comprising farmland (around 620,000 acres). “So the county has a bit of an advantage when it comes to total corn and soybean production compared to other counties in Illinois because we have more acres to farm than any other county in the state,” she said.
According to the farm bureau, around 93% of the farmland in McLean County is considered prime farmland, defined as land that has the best combination of physical and chemical characteristics for producing food, feed, forage, fiber, and oilseed crops. The soil quality, growing season, topography and moisture supply allow for the land to economically produce sustained high yields of crops with proper management, said Ziegler.
“I wouldn’t say that McLean County by itself is the breadbasket of the world, but we are an important part of a highly productive region, the Corn Belt, that provides a significant amount of the world’s supply of corn and soybeans,” Ziegler said, before offering some perspective on the county’s total production compared with state and national numbers.
“McLean County’s 2022 corn production (nearly 71 million bushels) and soybean production (about 21 million bushels) each represent about 3% of Illinois’ total corn and soybean production respectively. So while we are the largest producing county in the state and in the nation, we are one of many highly productive counties in Illinois,” Ziegler said.
In total, Illinois farmers produced about 17% of the nation’s 2022 corn crop and about 16% of the nation’s 2022 soybean crop, she added.
McLean not unique in high production
While McLean County had the highest production of any U.S. county in total 2022 soybean production, it wasn’t even in the top 10 Illinois counties for soybean yield. At 68.8 bushels per acre (bpa), McLean was bested by Piatt County, where farmers harvested 74.2 bpa of soybeans last year. Also faring better in average soybean bpa were Macon, Sangamon, Scott, Logan, Tazewell, Stark, Morgan, Christian, Champaign and Woodford counties, according to a news release from the Illinois Department of Agriculture (IDOA).
Illinois had the top five counties in the country for total corn production, the IDOA reported. In addition to McLean County’s pace setting 71 million bushels harvested, rounding out the top five producing counties are Iroquois, Livingston, LaSalle, and Champaign — coming in at two through five respectively. Illinois as a whole was the second largest producer of corn in the country in 2022, trailing only Iowa.
“Our Illinois farmers have once again proved why agriculture is the number one industry in the state of Illinois,” said Illinois Department of Agriculture Director Jerry Costello. “Our agricultural reach goes far beyond our state. In 2022, Illinois exports of corn and soybeans to the world totaled over $3.5 billion.”
“For centuries, Illinois has solidified its status as an agricultural state — and 2022 was no different,” added Gov. JB Pritzker. “Thanks to the hard work of our farmers, Illinois counties produced more corn and soybeans than anywhere else in the nation — exporting millions of bushels around the globe and generating billions in revenue. When we say Illinois farmers do it best, this is what we mean.”Click here to see more...