By Woody Woodruff
Right now, our state legislators are in special session to address the state budget. During this time, one of the topics for debate will be conservation funding, which would be cut drastically under the Senate Republican budget plan.
While it may seem easy to sweep conservation funding aside when the state budget is tight, the implications, not just for farmers, but for our communities, will be long-lasting. Farmers not only feed the people of Illinois, but determine the health of our local ecosystem. Wildlife, natural habitat, and more importantly, clean water, are all dependent on how well farmers manage their land. They are responsible for stewarding Illinois’ most precious natural resource, our soil. Yet farmers receive very few benefits for their contributions to society. Most have their own personally funded retirement plan which they don’t usually take advantage of until they can physically no longer farm. The average age of our Illinois farmers is the same age that government employees begin to retire and the number of farmers is extremely low, meaning that they have little voice in political decisions. In addition, farming is an extremely difficult profession and there is a constant struggle between earning a living and implementing conservation practices that often require increased knowledge, management, or money.
That’s where the county Soil & Water Conservation Districts (SWCDs) come in. They act not only as a voice for farmers in our local and state governments, but provide farmers with the resources they need to make wise stewardship decisions. These districts were created in 1936 as a direct result of the Dust Bowl, whose sweeping storms devastated American farmers and communities, forced almost 60% of the population to relocate (1), and left depression-ridden America unable to grow a steady food supply. The need for conservation practices as a public service, and on-the ground support to help implement those practices, was clear. At that time, President Roosevelt had the foresight to set up the Soil Conservation District Program, “which gave local citizens the the opportunity to shape soil and water conservation and resource planning in their communities”(2).
SCWDs are governed by a locally elected county board of directors which works with local and state officials to help determine governmental policies and regulations. SWCDs have provided this representation since their inception and have made the most of their budget by partnering with other agencies and organization to pool dollars and resources, and the majority of all those funds go directly to the protection of our drinking water and soil health. The SWCD employees at the grassroots level, have been designing conservation practices like terraces, waterways, and ponds to slow down soil erosion. They work with farmers and ag service providers to promote newer practices like cover crops and more effective nutrient management policies to help farmers decide how much nutrients they should apply and when they should apply it in order to minimize run-off. They help educate communities, both urban and rural, on how to develop and implement watershed planning, which involves everything from urban drainage management to wildlife habitat development.
Yet, for all the good they do, in the past few years the SWCDs have been taking cut after cut. Their employees no longer even receive funding for employee health care. The implications from these cuts is already showing. Algal blooms caused by nutrient run-off are destroying the safety of our ponds, rivers, and drinking water. Dust storms, like the one that killed a young driver just outside of Springfield earlier this year, have once again begun to make their appearance.
The SWCDs were recently asked by state government to develop a more concrete plan to continue to receive adequate funding, and they have finished developing that plan. This plan would have the SWCDs focusing on soil health and water quality in a leadership role. This is a role that will be crucial in mitigating climate change and protecting our drinking water. But now our elected officials want to cut the Partners of Conservation funding, the source of SWCD funding, as well as many other conservation efforts. As a farmer and past SWCD employee, I know their value first hand, and I am deeply troubled by the implications.
Science is showing that agriculture, our food system, our natural resources, and our climate are all in a time of crisis. Studies show that our greatest natural resource, soil, is being depleted at a rate faster than it can be replenished and the quality of rivers, streams, and drinking water is in jeopardy. Well-documented analyses of climate change predict that extreme flooding and droughts will not only continue, but increase in severity. Agriculture and farmers will play a key role in reversing all of these life threatening trends, and our local SWCD office staff are working to help farmers in that effort. However, the Illinois government sees our financial budget as a greater threat than the loss of food security and safe drinking water. I am sorry but I cannot in good faith vote for this kind of behavior. And I encourage you to speak out as well. Contact your state Senators here.