My Farm Roots: Always a farmer

Sep 18, 2013

As secretary of agriculture, Beck Doyle and Gov. Jim Edgar, center, ride through the 1991 Illinois State Fair. (Courtesy State Journal-Register)
As secretary of agriculture, Beck Doyle and Gov. Jim Edgar, center, ride through the 1991 Illinois State Fair. (Courtesy State Journal-Register)

This is an installment of the 2013 edition of My Farm Roots, Harvest Public Media’s series chronicling Americans’ connection to the land. Click here to explore more My Farm Roots stories and to share your own.

In 1986, Becky Doyle was helping her husband run the family’s hog farming operation. She also had a sidelight business of marketing gift baskets made from Illinois products. But that wasn’t enough: Doyle decided she would make a run for the Illinois House.

“I was young, naive and thought I could run as a Republican in a district where it was 11:4 Democrat,” Doyle said.

She ran against a Democratic incumbent. She lost, but it changed her future. During that campaign, she had a popular Republican secretary of state come into the area to stump for her. Doyle and Secretary of State Jim Edgar built up a good relationship and chatted about rural development, international marketing and agricultural issues between campaign appearances.  Edgar’s spouse, Brenda Edgar, used Doyle’s gift baskets as thank you gifts along the campaign trail.

Four years later, Jim Edgar became the governor of Illinois and he picked Becky Doyle, who was 37 at the time, to head up the Illinois Department of Agriculture – a job she held through Edgar’s full two terms as Governor.

There was some initial skepticism.

“Not because I was a female, but because I was young,” Doyle said. “The largest staff I had ever had was eight part-time staff at Blackburn College and going to 770 employees (at the Agriculture Department) – I was a little skeptical when I walked in the door.”

She served in the mid-1990s when the controversial issue of large livestock facilities emerged. It was during her tenure that the state adopted its first set of rules to regulate them, something that people weren’t expecting from a hog farmer.

“I’m married to a pork producer, both my brothers are pork producers, so there was a lot of skepticism that I’d be willing to or able to administer a livestock waste program as a disinterested party,” Doyle said.

It was and remains an emotional issue for many people.

“The public face was ‘Can a livestock producer adequately regulate people she’s been in the industry with?’ The thing that made it work was when I got in the car every day and left the farm, I took off my farmer hat and put on my Department of Agriculture hat. My husband will be the first one to tell you that I was harder on him and my brothers than on people I didn’t know. You have to take that extra step when you’re in a regulatory position, to prove it.”

Doyle worked with environmental and conservation groups trying to build a better relationship with agriculture interests and had some success when they came up with an initial round of hog farm regulations.

She doesn’t spend as much time on the family’s hog operation now. But even working as a consultant she hasn’t left ag behind, helping the state of Iowa come up with a strategic plan for its agriculture industry.

Doyle developed a deep appreciation for the Midwest and its history as America’s breadbasket. The soil, she says, is incredible.

“When you get down to it, that’s what made the American Midwest and Plains states a productive powerhouse in the world,” Doyle said. “They’ve carried this country through so many tough times.”

Public servant, consultant, Doyle is always a farmer.

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