By TIM ALEXANDER
PEORIA, Ill. — As Earth Day 2017 approaches, farmers in Illinois and across the region are committing themselves to conservation stewardship in record numbers, according to Ivan Dozier, Illinois state conservationist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
He feels farmers are continuing to make great strides in doing what they can to protect their land and natural resources. “Every April as we celebrate Earth Day, I ask myself how Illinois farmers measure up on stewardship and resource protection,” Dozier said in an email.
“I think the continued interest in NRCS’ voluntary conservation programs says it all. Interest in the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) is at an all-time high here in Illinois and across the country.”
In addition to the success of the CSP, NRCS debuted its Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) in 2015, which continues to grow in popularity and gain success with new ideas and new partners. In 2016, the Illinois Corn Growers Assoc. (ICGA) took the lead in a new RCPP program, Precision Conservation Management, which will receive funds and begin accepting applications in fiscal year 2017.
Current RCPP projects focus on best management practices (BMPs) for addressing nutrient and sediment losses, conservation cropping systems to improve soil health and shorebird conservation management via drainage water management.
Other projects received funding to address regional natural resource issues, including urban agricultural projects involving the use of high tunnels, or hoop houses, for growing legumes, fruits and vegetables.
In addition, Illinois NRCS is actively working to improve water quality in sensitive watershed areas, along with local Soil and Water Conservation Districts and private landowners, including farmers. Shoreline stabilization projects in key watersheds, which provide local residents with a source of drinking water, have resulted in “dramatic improvements in water quality” and reducing erosion, according to NRCS.
The watershed program is funded through NRCS’ Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
Also serving farmers in their commitment to conservation is Lyndsey Ramsey, associate director of environmental and natural resources for the Illinois Farm Bureau (IFB). Pursuant to the introduction of the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy (NLRS, or the Strategy), the IFB debuted its Nutrient Stewardship Grant (NSG) in 2016.
For 2017, the NSG program has awarded grants for 18 projects – dependent on matching funding and/or in-kind contributions – to be implemented in 22 counties, which will advance nutrient management through local solutions and partnerships.
“We give county Farm Bureaus the resources they need to get shovel-ready projects started through the NSG program,” Ramsey said, citing recent success including a streambank stabilization project in Piatt County. “A new project we have is called 4R4U.
“We are working with GROWMARK and the FS member companies at the local level to get 4R concepts on the ground and conduct trials so local farmers can see the process and results. We are asking farmers to push the bar maybe a little further, to maybe try that cover crop or try a split application of fertilizer this year.”
Times of tight grain margins can make it tough for farmers who are contemplating installing sometimes-costly conservation practices to make budget allowances for cover crop seed, nitrate-reducing bioreactors and other related expenses, Ramsey acknowledged.
“That is the challenge,” she said. “These practices aren’t free. The farmers who have been planting cover crops for a while, they see the benefits and they have built that into their expense budget so those costs are manageable.
“It can be hard for folks to try new things, but it’s our job to continue to educate our members as to not only what the environmental issues are, but provide them the support to do the things we are asking them to do.”
While wood chip bioreactors and radish seed may require cash upfront before a positive return on investment is registered, long-term results confirm that such investments pay off in the long run, Ramsey noted, as confirmed by the NLRS and producers with whom she has worked.
“Farmers are the original experimenters. They are out there every year trying new things to see what works,” she pointed out.
State commodity associations are also doing their part to increase awareness for water and natural resource protection. According to data gleaned from 370 Illinois soybean grower interviews conducted in January and February 2017, 86 percent said they conduct regular soil tests, 81 percent use reduced tillage, 52 percent use split nutrient applications and 55 percent use precision agriculture technology, including variable rate seeding and nutrient applications.
In addition, between 37-46 percent have installed buffer strips, and 26-34 percent have adopted cover crops, according to the Illinois Soybean Assoc. (ISA) study.
To assist farmers in sensitive land areas, ISA is partnering with the NRCS in a Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program to remove 132,000 acres of cropland along the Illinois River. The goal of the initiative is to reduce total sediment loading by 20 percent, reduce phosphorous and nitrogen loading by 10 percent, increase native fish and mussel stocks in lower reaches of the water by 10 percent and increase populations of waterfowl, shorebirds and state and federally listed species by 15 percent.
While Illinois farmers can feel rightly proud of the efforts they are putting forth in voluntary conservation and land stewardship, the work to increase resource management by growers is far from over, Dozier advised.
“Even as good as Illinois’ conservation farmers are, there is always room for improvement. There are always opportunities to do more,” he said. “There are so many options farmers can try that can have tremendous impacts on productivity and savings on farm inputs.
“Try something new this year on a few acres, like cover crops. Make a new spot for wildlife or pollinators. Consider conservation tillage. Perhaps it’s time to investigate some of agriculture’s new trends. According to many conservation farmers, they can reduce your workload, cut fuel expenses and improve soil health.”