By CLIFF SCHUETTE
As a farmer in Clinton County who has been regenerative farming for more than two decades, I firmly believe that passing down healthy soil is one of the greatest gifts that we can give to future generations. Issues like soil erosion and nutrient loss are worsening at a time when we desperately need improvement. It’s urgent that state leaders help farmers protect this precious resource before it blows away in the dust or is carried out with the rain.
When I started farming with my father, we would get excited to use the latest technologies on the field. At first, these newly developed inputs helped to grow the business by protecting against things like pests and diseases. But it eventually became clear to me that these practices were not building soil health. There is not a one-size-fits-all plan for farms, but on our farm we tried our best to keep a living root in the ground, our soil covered, and the billions of microbes in the soil happy and functioning.
Today, my two sons and I advocate for regenerative farming through our seed and beef cattle businesses and through hosting educational events. We are fortunate to be in a position where we can help spread information and connect farmers who are looking for guidance. Many of the farmers and producers who have transitioned to these more regenerative practices did so with the support and mentorship of farmers who had already made the switch. Knowledge sharing has been a powerful tool in helping to expand regenerative farming across our region.
Peer-to-peer learning is what helped spark a favorite conservation program of mine, the popular Fall Covers for Spring Savings program of the Illinois Department of Agriculture, which grants $5 an acre reward on crop insurance premiums for acres with cover crops. It has been a successful startup, and I feel that if the crop insurance reward increased to $10 to $20 an acre, even more farmers would protect their soil with cover crops.
Cover crops are truly the best way to get started farming in a way that improves the health of the soil. It’s my goal as a regenerative farmer to help other farmers make the journey from tiling to no-tilling with cover crops, and then from annual cover crops to perennial pastures. Having always had livestock myself, I have had the privilege of seeing the tremendous value of keeping biodiversity on the land, and I hope to help others realize those benefits too.
So I believe that we have to keep doing more of what’s working. This means more field-days, more hands-on training, more one-on-one mentoring, and of course, more funding resources.
State lawmakers are currently considering legislation, the Partners for Conservation Reauthorization Act, SB 1701, which creates a coordinated approach to implement soil health practices on farmland throughout the state. SB1701 protects a critical fund, the Partners for Conservation Fund, and prioritizes programs that put regenerative farming resources in the hands of Illinois farmers and conservation partners so they can protect our soil and reduce water pollution.
By supporting SB 1701 and the accompanying budget request, which includes a $6 million increase in funding to the Partners for Conservation Fund, bringing the fund’s total to $20 million, lawmakers will ensure that farmers have the tools they need to advance this work.
Investing in healthy soil and conversation provides benefits across the board. Building healthy soil isn’t just good for the environment, it’s good for our communities. I know that when I invest in soil health and work with Mother Nature, I will see the return on my investment when my soil stays in place after severe weather, like strong winds, heavy rains, and droughts. When farmers invest in soil health, we are giving ourselves an advantage in combating ever-changing weather conditions. My sons will take over one day and I want to do all that I can to ensure a prosperous future not only for them, but for generations that follow.
Let’s help our farmers grow and our communities heal. Let’s protect our soil and our water. The key to achieving this is to get resources flowing from federal and state sources to support soil and water conservation on the ground and into the hands of farmers and producers.