Illinois Department of Agriculture is endorsing an innovative new program that rewards farmers with up to five stars for sustainability practices on farm fields that protect our drinking water and prevent erosion and nutrient pollution.
Over the summer, mother nature’s relentless heat forced a farm tour group with Senator Bennett into the kitchen of our host, and Champaign County SWCD Vice Chairman, Steve Stierwalt. An impromptu round table discussion ensued. Sitting around the table were staffers from IDOA, NRCS, the Alliance, IEC, TLC, AISWCD, and a rep from Congressman Davis’ Office. The group began discussing a bill our coalition had previously attempted to pass through the legislature in 2019 session, the Conservation on Public Lands Bill, which requested IDNR to suggest that all those that lease State Owned Public Land require conservation practices to be implemented on that land. The bill was tabled and did not move forward, suggesting the importance of a new strategy. Ideas began flying around the room of how the bill could be resurrected.
The STAR (Saving Tomorrow’s Agriculture Resources) Program was suggested due to its continued adoption in 43 counties by “early” and “middle adopter” farmers that are curious to rate their conservation practices to see how many stars their fields score. This free tool was designed by the Champaign County SWCD to motivate those making cropping decisions to use the “best management practices” that will ultimately meet the goals of the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy by evaluating their nutrient and soil loss management practices. Thanks to the STAR Program Report card, we found that in 2018, 180 farmers used to program on an accumulated 438 fields for a total of 27,418 acres.
Since the kitchen table conversation, the Illinois Department of Agriculture, which is in its second year of endorsing the program, has stepped up to the plate and is now requiring STAR applications on the Bureau of Land and Water Resources held farm land, which incorporates roughly 335 acres. Brian Rennecker, Bureau Chief for Land and Water Resources at the IDOA, stated “the farms started at 3-4 stars out of the gate.”
The Department is also requiring that the applicants for the FY20 Partners for Conservation Funds fill out a STAR field evaluation sheet.
With the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy nearing its publication, IDOA’s continued support of the STAR Program are the steps that we need to see in order to make any progress towards the reduction goals laid out in the Strategy.
The Alliance is very eager to continue the conversation with the group on how we can encourage more best management and conservation practices on our land. This soil health priority is one of many that we will be discussing with our Soil Health Champions and fellow coalition members for the 2020 Legislative Session.