By TIM ALEXANDER
DECATUR, Ill. — Calling it a “great story to tell” for the state’s farmers, Illinois Agriculture Director Raymond Poe and Deputy Director Warren Goetsch released the contents of the first biennial (2015-17) report on the state’s Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy (NLRS).
It lays out a plan for farmers to optimize nutrient loss reduction and stem the loading of nitrogen (N) and phosphorous (P) from farm fields to the Mississippi River.
The ultimate goal of the NLRS (or the “Strategy”) is to achieve 45 percent loss reductions in total N and P.
The short-term goal is to cut N losses from fields by 15 percent and P losses by 25 percent by the year 2025. The Strategy was implemented in 2015 and remains a voluntary guideline for farmers.
Joined in the media tent on the first day of last week’s three-day Farm Progress Show by Illinois EPA Director Alec Messina, Poe summarized “progress” Illinois farmers have made in adapting conservation practices on their operations, during a press conference.
“The biennial report issued today at the Farm Progress Show describes the actions taken over the last two years to reduce N losses and influence positive changes over time. The report shows farmers care about the issues,” Poe said. “Our goal today is to reach farmers who are still somewhat nervous about trying new practices. I’m here to tell you it’s not that hard.”
He added that increasing the exposure of the message of the NLRS will keep the effort in front of producers and help ensure the Strategy’s progress in years to come. Producers like himself owe it to future farming generations to embrace the sustainable tenets of the NLRS, Poe noted.
“There are a lot of reasons why the state’s NLRS is so important, including protecting the legacy of agriculture for future generations. In addition to improving our water supply, the Illinois NLRS is intended to improve the quality of farmland.”
Goetsch said the successes reflected in the biennial report would not be possible without the cooperation of NLRS stakeholders, which include agriculture commodity and farm groups, other non-agricultural interest groups, various government agencies and the university system.
“They all decided they wanted to own this issue. They weren’t going to look the other way, and we really appreciate all their efforts,” he said. “A recent study by USDA-NASS (National Agricultural Statistics Service) showed that 70 percent of Illinois farmers are knowledgeable and aware of the NLRS and the conservation practices included in the Strategy.”
Goetsch detailed some of the successes achieved by Illinois farmers that are in the NLRS report: “Many of our farmers are implementing best management practices (BMPs) and technologies. The number of BMPs installed across our state is a clear indication of the progress.
“In 2010 roughly 200,000 acres were dedicated to BMPs, as reported to Conservation Reserve Enhancement Programs.
By 2015 that number had increased to 425,000 acres. We’ve seen an increase in split nutrient application practices around the state.
“In addition, the number of spring-only applications has increased during the same time period. We’ve also seen an increase in the total acreage dedicated to in-field or edge-of-field conservation practices,” he said.
The explosion in cover crop use by Illinois farmers is reflected in the report, as well.
From 2011-15 cover crop use increased by 123 percent on tile-drained cropland and 66 percent on non-tiled cropland, “despite no new public monies made available for conservation implementation,” according to Goetsch.
Illinois EPA’s chief praised the NLRS board and its stakeholders for embracing the challenge of reducing N and P losses from farm fields across the state by promoting the Strategy to farmers.
“Beginning in 2013 the IDOA (Illinois Department of Agriculture) and IEPA formed our partnership to deal with the (federal) EPA directive asking states to focus on nutrient loss reduction,” said Messina. “We put together a policy board comprised of 32 different stakeholders from a wide array of interests around the state.
“We spent years working on this policy, the Illinois NLRS. It’s now a great success story.”
The Agriculture Water Quality Partnership Forum (AWQPF) works to implement agricultural policy and management decisions related to the NLRS.
Almost 90 staff members were involved in Strategy outreach in 2016, according to the report. Members reported the agriculture sector invested nearly $55 million in nutrient loss reduction research, outreach, implementation and monitoring in relation to the NLRS.
AWQPF members also reported extensive NLRS outreach efforts, with 38,852 people reached via “Ag Outreach Events” in 2016. In addition, some 64.000 automated phone calls were made to farmers.
Outreach events also included programs and activities that were field days, workshops and conferences.
The Illinois NLRS Biennial Report 2015-17 will be available to view or download at www.epa.illinois.gov/index according to a spokesperson. The report, facilitated by the Illinois Water Resources Center and Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant, will be updated again in 2019.
“This report showcases the progress farmers have made over the last few years in reducing nutrient loads entering Illinois rivers and streams,” Goetsch said. “It shows we do have a great story to tell here in Illinois.”