Reaching Farmers through the 2018 Conservation Cropping Seminars

By: Woody Woodruff

The 2018 Conservation Cropping Seminars have come to a close. This was the 5th year that Illinois Stewardship Alliance, the Illinois Department of Agriculture, the Illinois Natural Resource Conservation Service and American Farmland Trust partnered together to host these regional seminars which took place in Bradley, Olney, and Peoria this year. The seminars attract around 300 farmers each year from all 102 counties in Illinois.

A full house of farmers attended the first of three Conservation Cropping Seminars which kicked off in Bradley, Illinois, where they learned about the latest research in cover crops and conservation and how to add conservation practices to their farms.

As part of the Conservation Cropping Seminar steering committee for the past 5 years, I’ve noticed some positive trends at these farmer gatherings. For one, in the first few years, we found it hard to find experienced cover crop users to sit on our 4-person cover crop farmer panels. This year, we had a much larger pool to choose from as more local farmers have implemented conservation practices and have built up a stronger knowledge base of cover crop management. Having local peer mentors to connect with has been crucial in growing new cover crop users across Illinois.

This year our keynote speaker Steve Groff started off the seminar by making a tribute to Illinois’ own cover crop pioneer, Mike Plummer, who passed away over Christmas. Mike was considered the authority on cover crops locally as well as nationally. After 30 some years of cover crop research with the University of Illinois Extension and 10 additional years as a private cover crop consultant, Mike was my cover crop mentor and champion, and played this role for many farmers in Illinois.

Steve Groff is also a nationally known cover crop coach, with decades of cover crop research conducted on his own farm in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed in Pennsylvania.  An interesting fact that we learned at these seminars, was that our own Illinois sustainable agriculture academic leader and friend, Dr. Joel Gruver, got his start in cover crops as a grad student assigned to research being conducted on Steve Groff’s farm. Steve’s presentation on why farmers should be adopting cover crops in their conservation cropping systems was personal as well as persuasive. He even made a reference to last spring’s dust storm that crippled the roads around Springfield and halted traffic on I-72. Steve pointed out that the dust storm and its casualties could have been avoided if all farmers were using a conservation cropping system that included cover crops and no-till.

The second half of the day had different research experts speaking to the data and research that they are working on that supports the use of conservation cropping systems practices like cover crops, no-tillage, better nutrient management, and expanding crop rotations. The overall focus of this year’s regional events and their expert speakers was to show the audience a link to how improving soil health can reduce soil losses and improve water quality. This year was deeply rewarding to me in the fact that two of Illinois Stewardship Alliance’s staff members joined me in co-hosting these three regional events. Having co-workers who do work in the conservation arena helps us all better understand the different problems and possible solutions that farmers have as management choices. This type of conservation experience helps me as we continue to positively support each other in our own work areas. Thanks to all you that support and grow the work of the staff and mission at Illinois Stewardship Alliance.