Op-Ed: Many ways farmers protect soil and water

By Ted Mottaz

Peoria County farmer George Roberts grows corn and cover crops near Trivoli. The latter crops — ryegrass, oats, triticale, radish — go into the ground while the main crop is still in the field. They continue to grow after the corn and soybeans are harvested.

Cover crops help build organic matter and reduce soil erosion. Most importantly, they hold nutrients (fertilizer) in place for the next year’s crop. Without them, nutrients not used by corn and soybean plants can leave farm fields and enter streams, lakes and rivers, where they might harm water quality.

Roberts also participates in an education and outreach program to other farmers that has had water monitoring equipment installed on his farm. Samples are collected and analyzed to determine which of Roberts’ practices are most effective at keeping nutrients in place.

Roberts’ story is one of 50 in a new online resource, the Conservation Story Map. It includes videos and photos of the many ways farmers protect soil and water. Users can search the Map by stewardship method, locale, type of project, or by farm, conservation and other groups that provide funding and support.

The land and water benefit when nutrients stay where they belong. Farmers also gain. Roberts gets the most out of the fertilizer he buys each year. He gets the best crop yield, ensures that his crops take up the maximum amount of nutrients possible and has fewer weeds to control.

Illinois farmers join cities, towns and others in working to improve water health. The state’s Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy outlines the methods detailed on the Map. Released a year ago, it aims to reduce by 45 percent the phosphorous and nitrate loads in the state’s waters from wastewater treatment plants and from urban and farm runoff. It also speaks to the bigger picture: hundreds of square miles in the Gulf of Mexico impacted by excess nutrients that flow from upstream.

Farmers get help from the Illinois Council on Best Management Practices (CBMP) in doing their part. CBMP is made up of farm groups and of businesses where farmers buy fertilizer. It identifies stewardship practices that work, are good for the environment and make economic sense for farmers.

The best and latest science supports cover crops and these other techniques. How are other farmers in your area working to keep the land and water healthy? See and hear George Roberts’ story and others at www.illinoiscbmp.org.

Ted Mottaz is with the Illinois Corn Growers Association, based in Bloomington.