(Posted Wed. May 24th, 2017)
Last weekend, farmers and consumers came together to enjoy corn-based spirits and conversations about sustainability at the Heartland Craft Spirits Festival. The Illinois Corn Marketing Board organized the event, held in Chicago, as a pilot project to test the learnings gained through the National Corn Growers Association’s corn reputation research. A number of state corn associations, including Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin, sponsored state-specific categories in the juried tasting competition preceding the event.
The event, which took place in Bucktown’s Concord Music Hall, truly brought the farm to the city. With dozens of living corn plants, virtual reality farm tours and farmer volunteers, craft spirit enthusiasts looked beyond their local distillery to find out more about the men and women who grow corn. This proved particularly relevant as this specific competition, due to the partnership with ICMB, featured only spirits made using corn for 50 percent or more of their feedstock.
“Illinois corn was excited to lead this pilot project and pleased so many representatives from both state and national staff turned out to support the effort,” said ICMB Director of Communications Tricia Braid. “This event offered a unique opportunity to interact directly with future opinion leaders and cultural influencers. By meeting this important group in a familiar setting that they enjoy, we were able to reach beyond our normal sphere of contact and build mutual understanding that will facilitate productive conversations based in mutual interest and trust well into the future.”
Attendees mingled with several Illinois farmers who traveled to Chicago, despite an ongoing planting season, to engage in important conversations highlighting the sustainability of corn growing and as a source of feed, fuel and fiber. In the outdoor food truck area, sponsored by Illinois pork and beef associations, curious consumers fed their appetites for knowledge with trips through the Biofuels Mobile Education Center.
The day prior to the event, state staff from Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin, as well as NCGA staff, explored unique agricultural projects in Chicago. In the morning, the group met with a representative of the group NeighborSpace, a non-profit land trust dedicated to providing long-term protection for community gardens across Chicago. The group, which links community organizations to a support network, helps transform underused spaces into urban oases while growing deep roots for communities. With more than 100 gardens across the city, NeighborSpace fosters not only communities but also helps urban residents develop an understanding of and appreciation for agriculture.
Later, participants visited the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences. This magnet school, located on a working farm, allows children from across Chicago the unique opportunity to gain an exceptional level of knowledge in programs such as horticulture, animal sciences, biotechnology, food sciences and agricultural finance while still completing a college preparatory general curriculum. The student-led tour provided firsthand understanding of the excitement for agriculture that permeates the school, which incorporates hands-on programs that allow students to take responsibility for a bee colony, working greenhouse, live farm animals and a joint aquaculture and aquaponics laboratory.
The day concluded with a trip to the communal inspiring office solution WeWork. There, the staffers interacted with educated urban creatives to practice discussing the sustainability subjects indicated as most important to consumers in the corn reputation research. Trying out both the whiskey submitted by craft distillers to the competition and the messages to promote the sustainability of corn led to a greater understanding by both urban and rural alike.