Bill adds soil health to SWCD’s mission

Roundtable discussions were held as part of the Illinois Stewardship Alliance-hosted Soil Health Summit in Springfield April 9. Eliot Clay (seated at far end of the table), Illinois Environmental Council’s agriculture and water programs director, updated the attendees on legislative issues and received feedback.

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Legislation that amends the Soil and Water Conservation Districts Act passed unanimously in the Illinois House and is now in the Senate. The bill would add soil health practices to the list of resources districts can provide for farmers.

The amendment provides that the purposes of the districts include the conservation of soil health, organic matter in soil and plants and water quality, rather than just water; and the improvement of resilience to droughts, floods and other extreme weather.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Scott Bennett, D-Champaign, and Rep. Michael Halpin, D-Rock Island, in their respective chambers, defines soil health as the “overall composition of the soil, including the amount of organic matter stored in the soil and the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals and humans.”

It allows districts to initiate and conduct specified activities regarding improvement of soil health, including surveys, investigations, research, development of comprehensive plans, entering into agreements with or cooperating with other entities and making agricultural and engineering machinery and equipment available to landowners or occupiers within the district.

An update on the bill’s progress was given by Eliot Clay, Illinois Environmental Council’s agriculture and water programs director, at a Soil Health Summit April 9. The event, hosted by the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, brought together farmers, organizations, agency officials and other partners to explore how policy can enhance soil health and stewardship to vital resources.

“The Illinois Environmental Council has been working with the Stewardship Alliance and soil and water conservation districts on this legislation. I think all of the farm-related groups are pretty much on board with what we’re trying to do,” Clay said.

The soil and water conservation districts’ roots go back to 1937 when the U.S. Department of Agriculture drafted the Standard State Soil Conservation Districts Law that was initially established due to the repercussions from the Dust Bowl.

“People wanted the dirt to stay where it was and they started developing strategies at the local level to try to stop that from happening. And while that is definitely a noble endeavor and it’s something that’s very important still today, one of the things that have been coming recently is that the idea of soil health is becoming more prominent in the minds of farmers, conservationists and environmentalists,” Clay said.

“As a result of that, someone had brought the idea to us that soil health should be a part of the mission of soil and water conservation districts in state statute. We wanted to codify this so that it’s something that would remain in perpetuity. We feel soil health is going to be very important moving forward and it’s going to become more and more of a discussion as we keep spreading these ideas.”

The Norm

Clay referred to examples of herbaceous wind barriers established in field perpendicular to the prevailing wind direction to help control erosion.

“We want soil health to be more a part of the conversation. We don’t want this to be a one off where there’s some ‘goofy neighbor’ who’s installing all of these trees on their land. We want it to be a common practice and we feel that by putting this in the Soil and Water Conservation District Act that it will gain the traction and the transparency that it needs so it doesn’t become something that’s weird. It’s something that is normal,” Clay said.

“We want soil health to be something that is just part of the conversation as a general rule of thumb moving forward.

“Soil health is something that has not really been talked about publicly a lot until the last 10 or so years. We’re hoping that by codifying this in statute we are going to be able to shift the idea and make this norm.”

Tom C. Doran can be reached at 815-780-7894 or tdoran@agrinews-pubs.com. Follow him on Twitter at: @AgNews_Doran.

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