Conservation Cropping Seminars: Changing the System

By Woody Woodruff

The regional 2017 Conservation Cropping Seminars were held in Rockford, Jacksonville, and Carbondale this year. This is the fourth year that we (Illinois Stewardship Alliance in collaboration with a wonderful group of conservation-minded organizations, including American Farmland TrustUSDA Natural Resource Conservation Services, Illinois Department of Agriculture, Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, and Illinois Council and Best Management Practices) have held these regional seminars, and we have pulled farmers to these conferences from every county in the state, as well as some from Iowa, Wisconsin, and Indiana. This year, I noticed that an exciting trend has developed- farmers that had attended these seminars in the past were returning to learn more! For those of you wondering what the Conservation Cropping Seminars are all about, the focus is to provide information from experts, including both farmers and researchers, on improving the overall management of soil and water health on farms across Illinois. Attendees learn how to apply conservation practices like cover crops, continuous living cover, small grain rotations, and no till to help improve soil fertility and water quality in a manner that is ecologically friendly and economical for the farmer’s bottom line.

The majority of the group that attended the Jacksonville seminar were farmers that have been making these changes to their farming operations over the past 4 years. It was fantastic to see the cultural evolution of mindsets among these early conservation pioneers from curiosity and perhaps even skepticism, to full on support for conservation practices, and it led to a great discussion. Many of these early adopters felt that through developing conservation cropping systems on their farms, they were enjoying unforeseen benefits. They saw the value in these systems, but also recognized the need for more farmers to value these practices as well.  One of their primary questions was “how do we get our neighbors to see the need for improving their present cropping systems?”

Bryce Hubbard looks over the cover crops growing on his family farm in Pike County.


Most of the farmers that have adopted a systems approach to agriculture and conservation originally began adding conservation practices because they were seeing erosion on their highly erodible farmland. Once they began adding practices like cover crops to hold soil in place, they began to see the other benefits as well- like more efficient use of nutrients, reduced nutrient runoff, increased rainfall retention, and added yield security during poor weather conditions.  Our current model of agriculture takes a problem-solution approach. Got pests, use a pesticide. Got weeds, grow round-up ready seed. Got erosion, apply a cover crop. But what farmers who began applying conservation practices like cover crops realized is, farming is not a problem-solution type of field. It is a system. And everything in that system is connected. When you change one thing in the system, it affects many other areas of the system. When those farmers applied cover crops, they not only decreased their erosion problem, but slowly began fixing a whole host of other issues they didn’t know they had, and this moved them to begin using conservation practices on all of their land, not just their erodible land.

A hedge of trees, grass border, and cover crops help protect soil from erosion on this rolling field.

More management is never easy. Extra planning is involved. Added risk from something new is always hard to overcome. A systematic change to the face of farming requires a change in mindset- a change in farm culture – a change from the current methods in which ground is left bare and sterile between harvest and spring to a system where continuous living cover feeds the soil for all 12 months. That kind of practice is something rural farming communities have not seen since the early twenties, and returning to that type of systems approach will not be easy. It took time for the problem-solution approach to deteriorate soil health and water quality and it will take time to implement lasting measures that will build them back up again. Minds are hard to change, especially when results are not immediately visible. In my observation, that is what makes this issue of adopting conservation practices so slow to change. How do you make someone see, when the need for change is hidden in the health under the soil or in the evaporating water vapor that escapes to thin air?

Fortunately, the systems approach is catching on. I’ve been noticing an increase in the number of fields that are now green with either winter grains or cover crops as I drive from town to town. In my view, forced change rarely lasts. Change has to come from within. And seeing is believing.  Let your community know if you like seeing green fields in the winter.