More state help needed to assist farmers in soil conservation – RobLaw News

After traveling across Illinois and with my consulting business, Progressive Agronomy Consulting, I have worked on conservation and nutrient management plans with farmers at all scales. I have seen soil at its unhealthiest and soil at its healthiest. I have seen the power in soil health focused farming practices — witnessed firsthand soil that is bone dry become rich with microbes with the help of living roots and soil health practices.

With seven people dying and dozens injured when a dust cloud enveloped Interstate 55 south of Springfield and made international news, there have been a lot of people commenting about the need to do something to ensure this doesn’t happen again. But this isn’t unprecedented. The Dust Bowl occurred nearly 100 years ago when the topsoil was left loose without anything to hold it in place. Strong winds picked up the soil and blew it across the Great Plains and all the way to the East Coast. 

The month of April in central Illinois was drier and much windier than normal. With normal rain events, this accident might have never occurred, but only masked the underlying cause.

Farmers need support from leaders at the state level to implement conservation practices to help keep more tragic accidents from occurring. Legislation now in the Illinois House — Senate Bill 1701, the Partners for Conservation Reauthorization Act — has a focus on soil health and providing funds for conservation farming practices and education. This bill could help provide support to farmers to ensure that we keep our most valuable resource, the soil, in place.

In Illinois, we lose nearly five tons of topsoil per acre per year on average. Much of that erosion is from rain, not wind. It’s not as apparent, because it falls from the sky and is less visible. But nearly every lake and reservoir in the state deals with sedimentation from agricultural land that carries with it soil nutrients like phosphorus that cause algal blooms in the middle of the summer or nitrates that can cause blue baby syndrome and other illnesses. This sedimentation forces municipalities to use more chemicals to treat the drinking water or to spend millions of dollars on reverse osmosis systems. All this cost gets passed down to everyone using that water.

Through my work, I have learned directly from the farmers I serve that there is a desired need for more outreach programs, peer-to-peer mentor groups, and education on how to manage conservation practices, like cover crops, and strip-till as another tool in the toolbox. Sometimes, the cost of the cover crops and the risk of the unknown keeps farmers from trying new practices.

The truth about erosion is that it is a biological process in the soil, specifically a lack of biological processes — or stable aggregates. These are the lumps and clumps of soil glued together. Without the glue to hold the soil together, Illinois soil is susceptible to wind and water erosion.

I believe that the tenants of soil health outlined by the Natural Resources Conservation Service can help solve the problem.

1) Keep the soil covered as much as possible with residues.

2) Minimize physical, chemical, and biological disturbances.

3) Keep a living root in the soil as much as possible.

4) Add more plant diversity.

But farmers need support through education, technical assistance, and funding in order to adopt these soil health practices.

Often, farmers feel like they are on an island if they are doing something different than their neighboring farmers and feel like they can’t talk about what they are doing with them even though the neighbor may be curious about the practice. Peer groups have worked incredibly well for some projects I have been a part of in Kansas to get a greater adoption rate with a greater degree of success.

I support SB1701, as it provides resources for peer-to-peer education and resources for farmers who are considering adopting a soil health system to their farming operation. Farmers can be their own greatest support group when adopting a new farming practice.

I urge you to join me in calling on our elected officials to pass this bipartisan bill.

David Kleinschmidt is owner of Progressive Agronomy Consulting in Vandalia.

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May 25, 2023 at 05:26PM

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