By TIM ALEXANDER
PONTIAC, Ill. — The paramount need for farmers and landowners to better manage land, water and other natural resources was underscored in a report issued in March by Solutions from the Land (SfL).
The Maryland-based agriculture, forestry and conservation group is concerned with global food and energy security, economic development, biodiversity, environmental improvements and solutions to climate change. According to the report, a shining example of the “solution” is the Indian Creek Watershed in central Illinois.
A study there is entering its third year of assisting farmers in the region in installing multi-stakeholder-led, integrated landscape initiatives on their properties. “We were fortunate to start with some local farmers who weren’t afraid to try new and different things. They started on a small scale and worked their way up,” said Marcus Maier, director of the Livingston County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) and a farmer from the town of Forrest.
“We formulated a plan of what we wanted to accomplish. We set ground rules and goals for the watershed. I think we’re looking good to continue this relationship for at least the next two or three years.”
The Indian Creek Watershed is an 80 square-mile sliver of the much-larger Vermilion River Watershed, which comprises a good portion of Livingston County and parts of LaSalle and Woodford counties, and empties into the Illinois River, the state’s largest inland waterway.
The Indian Creek project, led by the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC), provides the 104 producers farming within the watershed with technical assistance and information to implement new, small-plot conservation practices to minimize nutrient runoff from their farms. A benefit to farmers is the cost savings they realize by using less nitrogen (N) or other chemicals on their lands.
“Through a five-year grant, (SWCD) has been working with farmers, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, CTIC and our local Natural Resources Conservation Service office since 2010 on the Indian Creek Watershed project,” said Maier, who shared lessons from the project during a 90-minute seminar at the Normal Marriott Conference Center July 9.
The seminar was held in conjunction with SfL (which is sponsored by the Farm Foundation and the Nature Conservancy), CTIC and the Indian Creek Watershed Steering Committee.
“We have been contacted by others and have shared our positive and negative experiences with those in other watershed areas. We see this (project) as also serving as an educational opportunity. We learned from our mistakes, but did other things really well. All of this will hopefully educate and influence those in other watersheds,” Maier said, following his presentation.
All farmers in the Indian Creek Watershed region have been contacted about enrolling in the study, installing conservation practices and learning more about nutrient application techniques such as the 4Rs (right source, right rate, right time, right place). Thanks in part to the project, 55 percent of the area’s producers are now enrolled in government-led conservation programs such as the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) or Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).
Government funding targeted for Indian Creek conservation practices includes $50,000 annually for EQIP and a total of $350,000 for CSP, allocated over the five-year study period. The payoff to U.S. taxpayers comes in the form of sustainable lands and waters that can be handed down from one generation to the next with familial pride, according to Maier.
“This project is about increasing the water quality of the Indian Creek Watershed, therefore increasing the water quality of the Vermilion, the Illinois and the Mississippi rivers by reducing N runoff. It’s about developing ways to keep more of our nutrients in our soils and out of our waterways,” he added. “It’s also about how we can better utilize our fertilizers to reduce our input costs as farmers.”
There are a dozen or so soil nutrient trials under way at farms in the Indian Creek Watershed, to gauge the early results of farmers’ conservation efforts, including Maier’s. “Improving field practices and being good stewards of their land are ways farmers can improve their bottom line,” he said. “And once your soil is gone, it’s gone. We have to take good care of what we have, to pass it on to future generations.”
Maier may be contacted at the Livingston County SWCD by calling 815-844-6127, ext. 3.