SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — What began two years ago as an idea of two Champaign County farmers has spread across the Prairie State.
The Saving Tomorrow’s Agricultural Resources program was started in April 2017 to recognize farmers for their nutrient and soil loss management practices.
“It was primarily the idea of Joe Rothermel, Champaign County Soil and Water Conservation District chairman, and Steve Stierwalt, Champaign County SWCD vice chairman. They developed it with the help of the county’s SWCD director’s Stewardship Committee and took it from there,” Bruce Henrikson, Champaign County SWCD special projects coordinator, said at the recent Association of Illinois SWCDs annual meeting.
The S.T.A.R. evaluation system assigns points for each cropping, tillage, nutrient application and soil conservation activity used on individual fields. The practices selected and the point values assigned are determined by a group of scientists and researchers, including some farmers who are involved in research.
The Science Committee bases their analysis of recommended practices on the potential contribution to the goals of the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategies. The total points are used in a scale to determine a rating of one to five stars for each individual field.
The benefits of using this free program include: decreased nutrient loss, potential increased net farm income, potential to gain new farms to lease, landowners evaluation of tenants’ contributes to conservation, assistance in securing local conservation costs share, assistances to producers in obtaining documentation to support potential water quality issues, and assistance to producers in obtaining potential market premiums for conservation cropping practices.
In just its second year, there were 181 farmers and landowners participating across 436 fields totaling 27,157 acres across 40 acres. There were 88 fields with 5-S.T.A.R. ratings, 171 were 4-S.T.A.R., 120 were 3-S.T.A.R., 35 2-S.T.A.R., and 22 1-S.T.A.R.
In its first year, 78 farmers from 15 counties in Illinois participated in the free program.
The program has received endorsements from the U.S. Environment Protection Agency, Illinois Department of Agriculture officials and AISWCD.
“It’s a free tool that allows farm operators and landowners to evaluate, measure if you will the nutrient/soil loss management practices on individual fields and therefore implies that we’re trying to promote those things,” Henrikson said.
“The farmer fills out a form and gets a S.T.A.R. rating based on the points he or she has earned for those various practices. Signs are available for the field indicating the number of stars the field received.”
The program ties in with encouraging farmers to adopt nutrient and soil loss management in light of the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy released in 2015 with a goal to reduce the state’s phosphorous load by 25% and nitrate-nitrogen load by 15% by 2025. The eventual target is a 45% reduction in the loss of nitrates to the Mississippi River.
“We all know I can have goals but it doesn’t mean anything changes. It goes back to how can we make a difference. What can be different in the future? Ultimately we want to stop the nutrient losses, obviously, and along with that stop soil losses which carries those nutrients,” he said.
“We want to have better healthy soils, but ultimately we also know that farmers don’t like regulations. So, what’s the alternative if we’re going to solve the problem? It’s going to be voluntary. We know that we have to look for some voluntary ways to do this.”
For more information, including an evaluation form and instructions, visit www.ccswcd.com or call the Champaign County SWCD office at 217-352-3536, ext. 3. The program also has access to the “portal” that uses the Precision Conservation Management portal as the platform that allows any participant to enter their field information by computer or by a smart phone. Each county using S.TA.R. will be able to use that system.