Dozens of people gathered at the Illinois Soil Health Summit in Springfield last week. The Illinois Stewardship Alliance organized the conference to bring together farmers, organizations, agency officials, legislators, and other partners in a conversation about how policy can enhance soil health and stewardship of vital resources.
The afternoon kicked off with rapid-fire updates from 10 organizations, on their work to promote soil health. Then it was time for my presentation about state and local soil health initiatives from around the country.
After a short break, we divided into small groups to discuss state legislation and other ways to promote soil health in Illinois. IWLA agriculture outreach coordinator Tim Wagner and IWLA volunteer Dean Farr were among the participants.
The evening featured terrific food provided by local farmers who are growing food in sustainable ways that build healthy soils. But before this delicious dinner, we enjoyed a keynote speech by Woody Woodruff, an Iowa farmer and conservationist who is working for the Illinois Stewardship Alliance to help promote soil health solutions.
What's Being Done
The state of Illinois has adopted ambitious goals to reduce runoff of nitrogen and phosphorus into Illinois rivers, and to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases that are driving climate change. To date, however, the state’s plans for reaching these two goals have fallen far short of the actions needed to achieve them.
We think the science is clear: by focusing attention and funding on soil health practices, Illinois can make substantial progress in reaching both goals. Illinois and other states can make the best use of available funds by focusing on practices that deliver soil health and water quality benefits. Our "Leveraging Conservation Dollars" report has more information about the many benefits of conservation-focused agricultural practices.
The Izaak Walton League is working with partners in Illinois to promote state policies that will help restore the health of soils on agricultural land. Restoring healthy soils is a key to reducing the runoff of nitrates, phosphorus, and pesticides into our waterways. Regenerating healthy soil will protect our nation’s ability to grow healthy food for future generations, help address climate change by rebuilding the carbon content of our soils, and help farmers and ranchers reduce their input costs and boost their profits.
The Path to Success
Soil & Water Conservation Districts. The League supports legislation that would update the responsibilities of county soil and water conservation districts by adding soil health to their duties. A growing number of Illinois soil & water conservation districts are already teaching farmers about soil health, so we are also trying to win additional funding to help these local agencies build their capacity to reach farmers.
Managing Public Land. Over 50,000 acres of state-owned land is rented out for haying, grazing, or crop production. We support legislation that would allow the Department of Natural Resources to require soil health practices on public land it leases to farmers. We also support legislation that would require the state to install vegetated buffer strips on state land to protect nearby streams. State governments need to be leaders in following practices we are asking private landowners to adopt voluntarily.
Crop Insurance Discount. We support a proposal for Illinois to fund a $5-per-acre incentive for farmers to plant cover crops on cropland. Cover crops build healthy soils, reduce the runoff of excess nutrients, and provide wildlife habitat in the winter. Farmers would receive the incentive as a discount on their federal crop insurance premiums.
Soil Carbon. The League is working with other organizations to ensure soil health is a part of Illinois's efforts to fight climate change. Plants take carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, out of the air, and store it in the soil as organic matter. Healthy soils speed that process. Healthy soils also reduce emissions of nitrous oxide, another greenhouse gas, since healthy soils don't require applications of nitrogen-based fertilizers.
If you’d like to get involved in our soil health efforts in Illinois, contact Tim Wagner, our Agricultural Outreach Coordinator.