The biennial progress report on the Illinois State Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy demonstrates need for further funding and technical support for farmers
The Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy guides state efforts to improve water quality at home and downstream by reducing nitrogen and phosphorus levels in our lakes, streams, and rivers. The strategy was developed by a policy working group led by the Illinois Water Resource Center-Illinois Indiana Sea Grant, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, and the Illinois Department of Agriculture. Group members included representatives from state and federal agencies, agriculture and non-profit organizations, as well as scientists and wastewater treatment professionals.
The state of Illinois, through its agencies the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and the Illinois Department of Agriculture, released the 2017-2019 biennial report on its Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy, NLRS.
The results in the report where disheartening — no progress in reducing nutrient loss. In fact, the report showed an increase in loss of phosphorous and nitrogen.
For the five–year period from 2013-17, the statewide water flow, nitrate-nitrogen loads, and total phosphorus loads were estimated to be 13%, 7%, and 26% above the 1980-96 baseline period.
The anomaly of ‘increased water flow,’ or perhaps no anomaly at all given the increased propensity for extreme weather in the region including heavy rain events, did nothing to help the situation.
The evident role the weather played in slowing progress showed us that going forward our efforts will have to not only be about reducing nutrient runoff, but also about increasing resiliency of soils to hold water and nutrients through extreme weather.
The work is cut out for us. Despite:
- collaborative efforts by conservation groups, state and local governments, and agricultural groups who collectively hosted 1200 events about the NLRS and the practices to use to meet water quality goals, and
- growing attendance at such events and improvement in farmer–reported knowledge about key practices especially cover crops,
adoption rates for best management practices including the entry–level practice of planting cover crops are low. While the NLRS reported about 700,000 acres of cover crops in 2018, Illinois needs millions of acres planted to achieve its goals for local water ways and the Gulf.
And it’s not just one practice, we need to consider a whole systems approach– from the practices used in fields like cover crops, reduced tillage, and efficient nutrient management to edge of field practices like drainage water management systems and constructed wetlands.
We know that these practices work. At the same time we recognize that farmers face many challenges, some of which make it difficult to transition to using practices that protect water quality.
Successfully reaching NLRS goals will require systematic change and asking farmers to make whole system changes in their operations — requirements that can seem overwhelming.
As funding has become available, AFT has launched efforts to help farmers and jumpstart a whole–systems approach:
- AFT’s two years of work with nearly 20 individuals from agricultural, environmental, and conservation organizations discussing what a crop insurance reward program for cover crops would look like in Illinois paid off this year. The Illinois Department of Agriculture will be adopting and implementing a crop insurance reward program for cover crops called “Fall Covers for Spring Savings: Crop Insurance Reward Pilot Program.” Crop insurance is an integral part of the farm safety net that provides protection for farmers after bad weather impacts their crop yields. Cover crops can improve the resiliency of Illinois farm operations by improving the soil’s ability to absorb and hold water for crops. In other words, when managed well, cover crops can reduce the risk of nutrient runoff and yield being negatively impacted when bad weather hits. The pilot program will test whether a small crop insurance reward applied to fields planted in cover crops would incentivize more use of the practice across Illinois.
- AFT formed the Upper Macoupin Creek Watershed Partnership in 2015 with funding from USDA’s Mississippi River Basin Initiative and contributing funds from 14 local and state based organizations. The goal of the partnership is to reduce the loss of phosphorus into Macoupin Creek while improving farm productivity. The project is led by a 17-person steering committee including eight farmers; two local retailers; and representatives from AFT, USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service, Macoupin County Soil and Water Conservation District, and Illinois Stewardship Alliance. Together we have increased conservation practice adoption across the watershed, but like the rest of Illinois, practices have not been implemented on enough farmland to see a watershed–scale improvement in phosphorus loss. Last year the team completed an intensive modeling effort and received new funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Federation to provide one–on–one technical assistance to farmers in those areas of the watershed most at risk for losing phosphorus.
The main message I would like to convey is good news — we know what works! The science is clear – cover crops work to reduce the loss of valuable nutrients from farm fields, reducing tillage makes a difference, and using the 4Rs (right source, right rate, right time, and right place) framework to be as efficient as possible with nutrient application all works. But we need to see all these practices on many more acres. Accomplishing this will take more money to fund wider availability of technical assistance, but that availability is essential for the long haul.
But it’s not just about spending money. Making changes can lead to important gains. Farmers that have made a long-term commitment to nutrient-loss-reducing practices see not only improvement in environmental outcomes, but also increased productivity and a boost in profit. AFT’s recent case studies demonstrated exactly that; but reaching these milestones takes time and commitment.
At AFT, we believe the answer is long-term, consistent, technical assistance to support farmers through the transition process and beyond.
AFT Midwest staff are available to answer questions and assist all concerned, contact Kris Reynolds at firstname.lastname@example.org or (217) 556-1896.