MONMOUTH, ILLINOIS (September 1, 2023) — Law and agriculture will be brought together at Monmouth College on September 11 when environmental public policy consultant Lauren Lurkins delivers the annual Wiswell-Robeson Lecture at 7PM in Dahl Chapel and Auditorium.
An agriculture policy veteran and founder of Lurkins Strategies, Lurkins will discuss environmental-policy issues that Illinois farmers face and also speak to the opportunities for farmers in the future if they are actively engaged in the present. The title of her talk, which is free and open to the public, is "The New Defense of Farmers: Why Farmers Should Be Actively Engaged in Environmental Policy Issues."Prior to opening her firm this summer, Lurkins served as the director of environmental policy at the Illinois Farm Bureau for more than a decade. In that position, she was responsible for advocating on behalf of the organization in the implementation and enforcement of local, state, and federal environmental legislation and regulation impacting Illinois agriculture. She connected with various state and federal agencies, and developed and coordinated the organization's environmental programs, communications, and information.
"In seventeen years of working on environmental issues — ten of those and counting working for farmers — I think there is definitely no shortage of issues for farmers, either from the federal government or the state government," said Lurkins. "With all those challenges and issues, there's a ton of opportunities. So my thought is as a trained defense attorney, there is a super-strong defense the farmers have, and largely that's getting engaged in whatever way they're comfortable getting engaged in — whether it's a group like a commodity group or the Farm Bureau or them individually. There's a lot of opportunities, but letting them pass them by is probably the choice that they will regret the most.”
Southern Illinois roots
Lurkins, who grew up in Marion, Illinois, does not come from a farm background. She was an Environmental Science major at St Louis University, then followed a similar law-school track at Southern Illinois University. She spent the first seven years of her career at a private law firm.
"I never really loved the courtroom/litigation side of being a lawyer," she said. "I always loved the policy side, so when I saw there was an opening at the Illinois Farm Bureau doing environmental policy, I thought that was awesome."
Her legal training and interest in environmental issues put in her an interesting niche in the world of agriculture."I was a trained attorney, focusing on environmental issues," she said. "I was able to bring — and I hope I still do bring — that outsider perspective to say, 'Well, there's kind of a lack of awareness of the day-to-day.' I think it's very important to bust outside of those echo chambers and talk to people, kind of coming from both sides — the insider in agriculture and the outside."
A sampling of major issues
Lurkins shared some of the content of her e-mail inbox as an indicator of the type of counsel she provides.
"We've got climate-change with significant amounts of money being spent in conservation programs; conversations about the next farm bill and what that will do with regard to either climate-change or conservation; and we're dealing with the USDA and their decision on pesticide use, fertilizer use," she said. "That's just a short list of the issues that are coming about."
Lurkins Strategies deals with three main areas.
"I represent quite a few different trade organizations or individual companies on environmental policy and regulatory work," she said. "So, basically doing the same things (as her Farm Bureau role) — presenting people and cases to the EPA and USDA. I also spend a great deal of time working in academia, trying to support, largely, the folks at the University of Illinois as they try to get funding and also try to get projects done in the state of Illinois, and I'd love to expand that into other areas."
The third area of her consulting work is investor and venture capital-sustainability advising.
"There's a lot of money that folks want to spend on start-ups focused on ag tech, with about 99% focused on sustainability," she said.
As an example, Lurkins discussed how airlines are wanting to make fuel "out of things they've never made fuel out of before."
"That can be corn, that can be soybeans, that can be things like pennycress, which we talk a lot about in the western part of the state and here in Bloomington where I'm at," she said. "You've got research that's happening on how to genetically modify pennycress — which is essentially a weed — into something that can fuel jets one day."
That type of ag tech — and others like it — could be real game-changers.
"So the farmers that I work closely with who share their feelings on that are very intrigued when big oil and big ag are working together," she said. "But it's also a little bit terrifying — where is this world going? It could look very different in five to ten years."
The Wiswell-Robeson Lecture was founded in 2016 through a gift from 1960 Monmouth graduate Jeanne Gittings Robeson of Monmouth. The lecture's purpose is to annually feature a speaker from the agriculture community who explores issues, challenges, and innovations in the industry. Robeson and her late husband, Don Robeson, who was a 1954 Monmouth graduate, operated their farm in Warren County.