Illinois State Funded Programs Need to Fill in Gaps
The interim goals of the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy, or NLRS, are to reduce 15% of nitrate-nitrogen losses and 25% total phosphorus losses to streams and rivers by 2025. A large part of getting to those goals means rapidly scaling up the kinds of regenerative farming practices that help reduce erosion, increase carbon sequestration, and promote soil health.
Most farmers are knowledgeable about these practices overall, the National Agricultural Statistic Service survey shows that 80% of farmers know about nutrient management and about 85% know about cover crops. However, many still lack access to the financial resources and technical assistance they need to put those practices in place on their farms.
Getting access to those financial resources is challenging for any farmer, but that is especially true in the state of Illinois. Despite being one of the largest producers of agricultural goods in the country and home to more than 24 million acres of cropland, Illinois receives far less funding than its neighboring states from federal agricultural conservation programs that promote the adoption of new practices, like the Environmental Qualities Incentive Program, or EQIP, and the Conservation Stewardship Program, or CSP.
Between 2009-2019, Illinois received between 16%-51% less funding than all the other upper Mississippi states in combined funding for EQIP and CSP. In addition, Farm Bill rules reserve at least 60% of EQIP dollars for livestock and wildlife habitat projects, meaning that even less of that money is available for implementing regenerative practices on Illinois crop land.
Why does this funding disparity matter? Frankly, because some of the largest sources of nutrient contribution to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico “Dead Hypoxia Zone” come from Illinois waterways and the funding from these programs is not enough to correct those losses. Not only will we keep seeing challenges in water quality by not directing resources to the highest contributing watersheds, but farmers will not be getting the resources they need to improve soil health on their fields to build resilience in response to the impacts of climate change.
It is crucial that state funded programs step in to fill the gap. In Illinois, the primary programs that support farmers in implementing environmentally sound practices are the Partners for Conservation program and the Fall Covers for Spring Savings Premium Crop Insurance Discount program. Both of these programs are up for renewal this year in the 2021 legislative session.
What’s exciting is that the programs have been updated and brought together in the same bill, HB1792 and SB2474, as the Partners for Nutrient Loss Reduction Act. That means, for the first time, the state’s primary conservation programs will be targeted towards achieving the goals of the Illinois NLRS.
This is a big deal.
Targeted funding for improving environmental quality and conservation outcomes is hard to come by and Illinois has a real opportunity to show how it can be used to achieve goals around reducing nutrient loss. While these pieces of legislation and the funding (demonstrated above) represent a big step forward in filling some of the funding gaps between the state and its conservation goals, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done.
These bills need to be passed and funded this year or they could disappear, and Illinois funding disparities could get a lot worse.
We know farmers already do good work, and they are ready to do even more if they have the resources they need.
As these bills are considered in the Illinois General Assembly over the next couple of months, we need your support to cross the finish-line. Your legislators want to hear that you support the Partners for Nutrient Loss Reduction Act, and what it will mean for supporting farmers as they adopt regenerative practices that keep the environment safe and healthy for everyone across the state and throughout the Mississippi River Basin.