Unique partnership for conservation grows in central Illinois

By Aarian Marshall

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



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BLOOMINGTON-NORMAL, Ill., June 12, 2013 - Livingston County, Illinois may look like standard farm country. But a three-year old partnership between the area's farmers, agriculturalists, scientists and government workers means visitors need to look a little closer - or dig a little deeper - to find the differences.

Lets Talk Food

With the help of USDA's National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and corporate sponsors including Syngenta, the Fertilizer Institute, and the Mosaic Company, the Livingston County Soil and Water Conservation District's producers have rallied around one shared problem: depletion of the area's watershed.

It's a complex issue, but the public-private partnership has launched a number of projects to ensure that Illinois soil stays as productive and nutrient-rich as it is today.

Their flagship venture is the Indian Creek Watershed Project - a voluntary program that provides technical and financial assistance to producers addressing local water quality concerns. The project is part of the larger Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative, and has furnished Livingston County with NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQUIP) funds.

That money, supplemented by assistance from agriculture groups like the Illinois Farm Bureau, goes to farmers making coordinated and conscientious efforts to reduce nutrient runoff and soil erosion.

Producers also have the option of enrolling in the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), which gives landowners an annual payment proportional to the environmental change they effect on their property.

“It's a great partnership,” said Marcus Maier, a fourth generation farmer who has worked with the Livingston County group for six years. He says NRCS employees in particular have shown an interest in “coming up with things we can all work with.”

Maier made his remarks during the Conservation Technology Information Center's annual Conservation in Action Tour, which took out-of-towners around Livingston County this week to highlight the area's water quality projects.

John Traub, who operates Traub Farms, says participating in the partnership has already paid dividends. Last year, while other corn and soybean producers suffered through a hundred year drought, Traub struggled along with them - but “saw a difference in the way the crop thrived.”

Traub, whose land is majority strip-till corn and no-till beans, has installed buffer strips - permanent vegetation surrounding his crops meant to intercept pollutants and nurture wildlife - and drainage tile through the program.

He credits those changes with his quasi-success last year. While other producers' crops died immediately, his suffered a “slow, lingering death,” he said to laughs.

That's evidence that the partnership is going “great,” Jason Weller, Acting Chief of NRCS, told Agri-Pulse during the Conservation in Action Tour. Weller said he was impressed that producers were bringing up the benefits of the CSP program - one of his agency's newest priorities - completely unprompted.

“That wouldn't have happened a few years ago,” he said.

And he says Livingston County has become a model for the rest of the nation, demonstrating how federal, state and local governments can partner with producers and corporate interests to promote agriculture methods that are good for the land - and for the region's pocketbooks.

Producers are especially pleased because the county's programs are all voluntary, allowing them to pick and choose the conservation methods most appropriate for their land. And whatever the strategies use, demonstrable results garner the same outcome: federal money.

That makes no-till and strip-till farmer Steve Steirwalt pretty happy. “As a farmer, I want tot be able to forestall regulations by doing it myself,” he said.

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