Getting Serious with Soil Health - American Farmland Trust

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October 26th, 2021
Getting Serious with Soil Health
Jeff O’Connor standing in his field that has been freshly seeded with cover crops.
Photo by: April Opatik

Jeff O’Connor is a 6th generation farmer in Kankakee County, Illinois. Over the past decade, he’s gotten serious about Illinois soil health. “The ultimate resource you have is the land,” he told me while he brushed aside the corn crop residue to show the sprouting cover crop mix emerging on one of his fields, just a mere six days after planting. 

The ultimate resource you have is the land.

-Jeff O’Connor

Soon enough, Jeff’s cover crops will cover the field in a blanket of green through the fall and winter, digging their roots deep down in the soil to hold it in place. These cover crops will also capture more water while sucking up excess nutrients so that the water that comes off his fields is clean.

Planting cover crops is no easy job. While Jeff has seen the benefits of the practice firsthand, it still means prepping the soil and planting seeds before he can fully celebrate his harvest. Jeff is not alone. He is just one of the many farmers across Illinois and the Midwest trying to get their crop planted and find extra time to get their cover crops planted on hundreds of thousands of acres before the weather turns against them.

Daikon and cereal rye sprouting through a strip-till corn field.
Photo by: April Opatik

Luckily, Jeff found support from conservation programs like the USDA Conservation Stewardship Program and the Illinois Department of Agriculture’s Fall Covers for Spring Savings program. Alongside technical assistance from his local Soil and Water Conservation District, these programs have provided Jeff with the resources he needs to make cover crops and reduced tillage a regular part of his farming operation.

150-years from now, I want this land to be as productive or even more as it is today. I view adopting regenerative practices on my field acres the way to get there.

-Jeff O’Connor

Harvest time for corn.
Photo by: April Opatik

The gateway for making these kinds of practices the norm continues to be through state and federal conservation programs and local conservation partnerships that connect farmers to the resources and support they need.

The Fall Covers for Spring Savings Cover Crop Premium Discount program is a great example. By providing a straightforward and simple $5 discount on crop insurance premiums for every acre planted in cover crops, Illinois is providing a small but meaningful reward for the extra work that farmers need to go through to protect healthy soils and improve water quality. This $5 discount can support a farmer planting cover crops for the first time as an experiment or a farmer who is already protecting soil and no longer eligible for other conservation programs.

Four seed cover crop mix.
Photo by: April Opatik

This past year, the success of this program was recognized by USDA which offered its own Pandemic Cover Crop Program which modeled the Fall Covers for Spring Savings Cover Crop Premium Discount program to provide an additional $5 discount per acre for those that planted cover crops, even with all the uncertainty created by the pandemic.

Enrollment for the 2022 FCSS opens in December. The program has doubled from last year and has enough funding to provide a $5 discount on 100,000 acres in Illinois. All of these acres add up over the years to make progress on Illinois soil health and Nutrient Loss Reduction Goals and protecting the climate. And not only that, they can boost farmer’s bottom lines too.

If you are a farmer or know a farmer like Jeff, now is the time to get the Fall Covers for Spring Savings Cover Crop Premium Discount program application date on your calendar.