American Farmland Trusts’ Policy Priorities for Illinois 2021
In 1980, American Farmland Trust pioneered the first agricultural conservation movement to save the most threatened farmland across the United States. In the decades since, we have been proud to work with farmers, ranchers, and stakeholders across the country by protecting millions of acres of farmland, promoting environmentally sound farming practices, and finding innovative ways to keep farmers and ranchers viable.
In Illinois, this work has meant years of bringing partners together, like the Illinois Sustainable Ag Partnership, and connecting farmers to the technical expertise and financial resources they need to put in place practices that reduce pollution in waterways, improve soil health and water quality, and increase farm field productivity. This work has not only contributed towards meeting the state’s nutrient loss reduction goals. It has also bolstered the bottom line for farmers on some of the most important and productive cropland across the country.
We recognize that the challenges facing the state of Illinois and the Midwest region are serious. We are not on track to meet our nutrient loss reduction goals, and regenerative practices, like the use of cover crops and no-till, need to be expanded on many more acres. Farmland that is important to communities and the integrity of the landscape continues to be lost across the state. Climate change and increasingly extreme weather events threaten productivity and the resilience of the state’s farming economy.
Despite these challenges, there are many opportunities to advance important work on Illinois farmland. Through our efforts in farming communities across the state, we have seen a readiness to address these concerns and advance long–lasting, innovative solutions that have widespread benefits.
This demand is best demonstrated through farmer interest in participating in programs like the Fall Covers for Spring Savings Cover Crop Discount Program, which in the two years since it has been offered by the Illinois Department of Agriculture has been fully utilized and oversubscribed. In the 2021 application period, while the program could only support practices on 50,000 acres, over 750 applications were submitted for more than 185,000 acres. In fact, the acreage limit for the program was met within the first 24–hours that the application period was open.
These program numbers show how a modest investment from the state can go a long way to encouraging farmers to adopt new practices.
What makes us optimistic is that the same regenerative practices that are best for protecting water quality, improving soil health, and growing farmer’s earnings are also best for lowering greenhouse gas emissions and reducing the threat of climate change. In this way, by aligning program interests and using climate action as a catalyst, resources can be stacked and leveraged from state, federal, and private sources to deliver benefits at a scale that is large enough to provide farmers with the technical and financial assistance they need.
The Midwest region is home to over 200 million acres of cropland and produces billions of dollars of food and agricultural goods every year.
We know that advancing the adoption of conservation cropping systems by stacking financial and technical assistance is a big opportunity in Illinois. Carbon farming on its own has the potential to bring millions of dollars of new investment to the state while reducing harmful emissions. With a little more coordination, the state is set to make big strides towards protecting farmers, improving environmental quality, and meeting its climate commitments.
Towards these goals, we recommend that Illinois’ legislators and policy makers give attention to the following priorities in 2021:
- Align State Programs with Climate Action—Climate action on US croplands can play a significant role in reducing emissions and removing harmful greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Gov. Pritzker’s Putting Consumers & Climate First: Eight Principles for a Clean & Renewable Illinois Economy shows how state efforts can be aligned to secure investment in support of climate action within the energy and transportation sectors. Similar attention should be given to Illinois agriculture and existing programs should be updated to recognize the role of agriculture in combating climate change while also removing barriers to new partnerships and investment related to climate finance.
- Incentivize Regenerative Practices—The Fall Covers for Spring Savings Cover Crop Premium Discount Program provides an innovative model for how to deliver targeted incentives that make sense for farmers’ business plans and which fit with existing programs and infrastructure. Continuing to develop these kinds of approaches is critical to encourage rapid adoption of regenerative farm practices with relatively little new investment. This program also has the potential to serve as a national model which can be adapted for other states or the federal government.
- Adopt an Outcomes Driven Approach—We know what practices matter most for achieving the best environmental outcomes and we know how to measure those outcomes. However, those practices are not always prioritized when directing financial resources like grants and cost-share support. State processes like Budgeting for Results show the importance of using data and results–driven information to guide funding where it is most effective. Such processes need to be further integrated into state agency practices to ensure that the state can reach its environmental quality targets.
- Expand Land Protection and Land Access Efforts for All—Illinois is losing farmland and does not have enough tools to protect it. Illinois should evaluate its existing farmland protection efforts and expand financial, planning, and technical assistance to identify and protect agricultural assets, encourage succession planning, and transfer land to the next generation of farmers. Supporting land access efforts is especially important for people of color and populations which have faced persistent discrimination in land ownership and financial practices related to farming.
- Leverage Private Sector and Philanthropic Support—State funding and technical support programs are critical for attracting federal dollars to Illinois. In the same way, these resources can be used to attract private investment from climate finance, impact investors, and philanthropic sources. Reauthorization and updates to programs like the Partners for Conservation Fund can further attract this support in ways that deliver the resources that farmers need to mitigate risk and adopt regenerative practices.
As the state navigates its way through the budgetary process, AFT will actively work with policymakers to ensure agricultural sustainability is embraced in order to protect the agricultural resources that sustain us. Look for more information in coming months and opportunities for how you can help. We are stronger together.