By TIM ALEXANDER
BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — The recently formed Illinois Nutrient Research and Education Council (NREC), comprised of 13 representatives from ag and environmental organizations, the Illinois Department of Agriculture and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), announced a variety of projects for 2013.
These focus on crop production and environmental protection needs, the use of cover crops, chemical application methods and nitrogen management practices. The projects are part of the NREC’s “Keep it for the Crop” (KIC) nutrient stewardship program.
“Illinois agriculture must increase our productivity and demonstrate environmental responsibility, and NREC provides a sustainable source of funding for these endeavors,” said Gary Hudson, NREC chair, representing the Illinois Corn Growers Assoc.
“The Council faced a difficult task in evaluating 30 projects submitted to NREC for consideration and determining which ones are best suited to address the challenges faced in both crop production and water quality. The projects that the Council selected to fund will result in valuable information to farmers and enable agriculture as a whole to make improvements in both of these vital areas.”
Jean Payne, president of the Illinois Fertilizer & Chemical Assoc. (IFCA), said the projects help the state’s farmers avoid lawsuits and potential U.S. EPA regulations by demonstrating, with sound science, the advances Illinois agriculture is making in nutrient loss prevention.
“A slate of lawsuits in Florida, the Chesapeake Bay and now the upper Mississippi River basin are ongoing, with the (2012) lawsuit brought against the U.S. EPA concerning us the most,” Payne said, explaining the impetus for the formation of the NREC and its KIC program.
The Mississippi River basin lawsuit was brought by the Gulf Restoration Network, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and others, she explained. “The lawsuit seeks to force the EPA to do more to protect water quality. What they want is a (reduced) numeric standard for lakes, streams and rivers. The standard that has been proposed for a state like Illinois is 2 parts (nutrients, such as nitrogen) per million,” she said.
“Our current drinking water standard is 10 parts per million. They want 2 parts per million in lakes and streams, not just drinking water. That is a huge challenge, particularly in a state with very organic soils that naturally release nutrients. If you had a regulatory framework where you had standards like that in waters, agriculture would definitely be impacted.”
The federal EPA is working with state EPA offices to reduce nutrient losses from nonpoint sectors such as agriculture on a voluntary basis – so far. In 2011, the Illinois EPA approached the IFCA, Illinois Department of Agriculture and other state ag organizations to develop a strategy specific to Illinois.
“The whole thought is that if we have a proactive program and demonstrate good nutrient stewardship, then we can avoid becoming a regulated industry,” said Payne.
While the exact locations and properties involved in the NREC’s 2013 roster of studies have not yet been announced, she’s excited about a new five-year cover crops study and a reevaluation of phosphorous (P) and potassium (K) recommendations for various crops to be funded by the NREC.
“Cover crops are of keen interest to farmers in Illinois recently, and their role in a corn-soybean rotation. They are interested in learning more about soil quality, nutrient sequestration and management practices. We want to provide them with the science they need to benefit,” she said. “This is a statewide, coordinated study that’s never been done in Illinois before.”
She added the study will be done in conjunction with the University of Illinois-Urbana Department of Crop Sciences, and include 15 crop fields.
The study of P and K, which will include a look at how various application methods can reduce runoff, is another long-overdue effort to benefit Illinois agriculture, according to Payne.
“The agronomy handbook establishes recommendations for P and K and crops, but those recommendations were developed over 30 years ago,” she said. “There are different hybrids and crop protection products out there now, so we really need to reevaluate P and K recommendations while considering today’s agricultural practices.”
The NREC board also approved a program to study farm water quality managed by the Illinois Council on Best Management, and a joint project seeking viable ways to reduce nutrient losses in critical watersheds with the Soil & Water Conservation District and others.
The Council will also fund an online training program to improve safe handling of anhydrous ammonia by farmers.
All NREC projects are funded by a new, 75-cent tonnage fee paid by farmers for fertilizers in Illinois. The fees collected are held outside state government, administered by the NREC board. In the past, taxes collected and held in state coffers tended to be misdirected or “swept” by legislators for capital projects or other non-agricultural uses, Payne said.