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Sustainable ag partnership eyeing zero-carbon future
 
By Tim Alexander
Illinois Correspondent

DEKALB, Ill. – Tenets of the Illinois Sustainable Agriculture Partnership’s (ISAP) mission to improve soil health and mitigate nutrient loss on farm fields are exemplified as part of President Joe Biden’s executive order to greatly reduce carbon emissions from U.S. industries, including agriculture, by 2030.
A look at ISAP’s recent “Theory of Change” mission statement, which was culled from a series of discussions with partners last year, shows how ISAP’s current goals are closely aligned with helping producers voluntarily meet the tenets of the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy – while making sure farmers benefit from being a part of the climate solution.
“We developed a fact sheet on the potential income opportunities for conservation practices such as growing cover crops, and we are promoting these practices to improve water quality and environmental outcomes. Many translate into on-farm soil health while providing the potential for possible economic benefits,” said Jean Brokish, ISAP coordinator and program manager for American Farmland Trust. “No till and cover crops have a potential to provide upward of $100 million at maximum potential, meaning if those practices were adapted on every acre.”
Many of ISAP’s Theory of Change core strategies are in lockstep with the Biden administration’s efforts to involve agriculture in their strategy to address the climate crisis. Increasing farmer recognition of the economic value of conservation practices and accelerating the adoption of practices that improve soil health and carbon cycle balance are at the heart of Biden’s new plan, but have served as the cornerstones of ISAP’s mission for the past several years. 
‘We were moving in this direction before January 21. There has been growing consumer demand for sustainable products, and the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy (of 2015) set the parameters for sustainable practices. I think what the Biden administration brings to the table is potential investment, and that is a good opportunity that I’m very supportive of,” Brokish said. “I think that part of the problem with mandates and goals is that if there is not enough funding or a market-type incentive to go along with it, we are just asking our farmers to do more and more with less. If the policies and incentives are rolled out in a way that really benefits the farmers, there is great potential.”
After the pandemic limited events to online formats during 2020, Brokish, ISAP chair Jill Kostel and ISAP partners are looking forward to more personal, one-on-one interactions with farmers interested in ecosystem and soil health markets in the summer of 2021.
 “We’re looking forward to getting back out and seeing people at our field days and events. In the meantime I would urge farmers to go to our website, download our ecosystems fact sheet, and familiarize themselves with the companies operating within their markets,” Brokish said.
ISAP, founded in 2017 to create a network to support a systems approach to improve soil health and reduce nutrient loss, recently released their inaugural annual report highlighting 2020 activities. “2020 was difficult and challenging for many organizations, but for ISAP it really illustrated the direction we’re going and what we’ve achieved,” Brokish said. “So many of our programs involve getting information to farmers in a way that makes sense. We did our risk management workshops in 2020 in an online format, and we found this allowed us to use a little creativity in lining up presenters. Our ‘Bridging the Gap’ risk management program was very successful from a content perspective, but it was also a success in my mind because it was our first initiative while living within the new normal.”
During 2020, ISAP engaged nearly 2,000 individuals through conferences and presentations, reached 512 people through workshops and field days, and served as the conduit between farmers and 43 soil health and conservation drainage specialists who advised on 66,000 acres of Illinois cropland.
ISAP also hosted an Ecosystem Market Webinar in February 2021, featuring four representatives from carbon credit purchasing markets that are expanding into farm territory. ISAP recently announced a reprise of the webinar, dubbed the Ecosystem Market Summer Special, which will explore new management options and financial opportunities for Midwest farmers in the expanding ecosystems market. The four-part webinar series (June 22 and 24; July 13 and 15) is co-sponsored by agricultural and environmental organizations from Indiana, Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois.
“We are expanding the conversation from February and bringing in additional perspectives, such as input providers. We hope this encourages more farmers to get into some of these ecosystem and carbon markets,” Brokish said. “We are excited to continue growing our current efforts in being a structured, efficient group of partners that can help improve Illinois agriculture and educate farmers, ag retailers, professionals, and producers for years to come.”
More information, and a link to register for ISAP’s Ecosystem Market Summer Special, is available at https://ilsustainableag.org/ecomarkets.
6/10/2021