By TIM ALEXANDER
DEKALB, Ill. — In another big year for the Illinois General Assembly, funding for crucial agricultural conservation programs is once again on the line. In addition, legislators are also looking for ways to get resources for sustainable farm management solutions into the hands of those who are striving to meet the goals of the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy (NLRS).
A recent virtual policy roundup meeting hosted by American Farmland Trust (AFT) sought to engage farmers and conservation proponents in how to best use their voices to help protect vital programs, and urge support for new ones.
Max Webster, Midwest policy manager for AFT based in Dekalb, Illinois, began the meeting by defining AFT’s Midwest policy principles as 1) prioritizing soil health, 2) accelerating the adoption of conservation cropping systems, 3) increasing and diversifying funding for conservation programs and 4) protecting at-risk lands. Thirteen regional staff members will help carry AFT’s priorities forward in the coming year, while also focusing on crop diversification (especially small grains and bio-energy crops) and solar energy development on croplands.
As the Illinois General Assembly begins their spring legislative sessions, Webster outlined some of AFT’s policy priorities for the Prairie State.
“The issue that continues to frame our work in Illinois is the ongoing fiscal situation — there was a budget crisis a few years ago and there are lingering effects from that. Illinois is really in a recovery phase,” Webster said. “We are prioritizing securing sustainable funding solutions for the state’s agricultural conservation programs. We are also asking for the legislature to consider how to better establish local goals and local needs when it comes to implementing soil health practices. We are asking that they integrate climate programming into how (programs) work, and we also really need to expand the capacity of technical assistance at the local level to get those resources out to farmers.”
Whether to continue funding for the NLRS, adopted in 2015 to set goals for the reduction of crop nutrients in Illinois waterways, is an issue to be clarified by the Illinois General Assembly at some point during the spring session, which runs through April 8. Though funding for the NLRS was approved through 2027 by lawmakers in June of last year, the language of the bill granting approval for the funding still has not been worked out.
“The Partners for the Nutrient Loss Reduction Act would help guide the implementation of NLRS projects at the local level, integrate climate planning into state conservation planning, and expand the kinds of projects the state is funding,” said Webster. “It also focuses on the budget, extending and renewing support for programs like the Partners for Conservation Program, which is our conservation cost-share funding program in Illinois.”
Legislators need to hear from farmers and others in favor of renewing and extending Illinois’ NLRS and Partners for Conservation Program, along with additional technical assistance for Soil and Water Conservation Districts and support for the Illinois Department of Agriculture’s Fall Covers for Spring Savings crop insurance incentive program, according to Webster.
“Why are these priorities so important? We are falling behind on our NLRS goals in the state of Illinois,” said Webster, referring to data revealed in the most recent NLRS Biennial Report showing that goals for reducing nitrates and phosphorus from entering state waterways are not being met. “There is a lot of work left to be done in Illinois to be able to meet that challenge.”
To assist farmers in meeting conservation goals, additional support from both state and local government will be necessary, Webster noted. “Illinois, despite having the second-most cropland in its region, only got 14 percent of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) pie. That speaks to the challenge of having reduced state funding and reduced federal funding and trying to engage soil health practices. We need the state funding to leverage some of the federal funding to assist here in Illinois,” he said.
Webster offered advice on how to best alert lawmakers to policy actions favored by the AFT, including signing petitions, filing “witness slips” in support of legislation by creating a personal “MyILGA” account (www.my.ilga.gov/), writing letters to lawmakers, joining an in-person or virtual lobby and educating friends and family. A free “Illinois Policy Resource Guide” detailing how to convey policy wishes to the Illinois General Assembly may be requested by calling the AFT office at (815) 753-9347.