HARVARD, Ill. — Taking steps to improve water quality also will impact soil health.
“Even though soil, water and wildlife habitat are three different things, they are all linked,” said Jennifer Filipiak, American Farmland Trust Midwest director.
“Things you do to improve soil health will also help with water quality,” she explained during the Learning Circle for Women Farmland Owners meeting, hosted by the Land Conservancy of McHenry County. “Healthy soil filters water, holds water and things that you do that’s good for the soil is also helpful for wildlife habitat.”
Founded in 1980, Filipiak said, the American Farmland Trust’s mission is to protect farmland, promote sound farming practices and keep farmers on the land.
“You can’t just protect the land because it’s not really protected if it can’t continue to grow food for generation after generation,” she said. “It needs to be managed with good practices that promote the life in the soil and enable the land to keep producing fuel, food and fiber.”
And, Filipiak noted, it is not really protected if there are no farmers to farm the land. As a result, establishing conservation practices on some farms is important.
“We can cost-share up to 60 percent to establish a conservation practice that addresses a resource concern,” said Spring Duffey, McHenry-Lake Soil and Water Conservation District resource analyst.
One example is planting a cover crop.
“We can fund up to 40 acres to try cover crops for the first time,” Duffey said. “It’s recommended to start small with cover crops.”
And, Filipiak explained, some conservation practices can be done by the landowner or tenant, and others will require a contractor for installation.
“The Natural Resources Conservation Service provides technical assistance to develop a plan,” she said.
Some landowners may have a place where they want to do prairie restoration.
“Prairie restoration is a difficult and long process,” said Nancy Williamson, Illinois Department of Natural Resources regional watershed coordinator. “Typically wetter areas and areas that have not been tilled often are more restorable that dry areas.”
Only one-hundredth of 1 percent of the original prairie is left in Illinois, Williamson reported.
“That is mostly in the old railroad corridors,” she said.
It is important to talk to the appropriate people and evaluate the land, soil and hydrology, Williamson said, to decide which plant species are recommended for a site.
“A lot of species are not real picky, but others need a wet or dry condition,” she said.
Establishing prairie plants can be a real benefit since the roots go down so deep, Williamson said.
“They take water down into the soil,” she said.
A site assessment also is important for developing a pollinator planting.
“Pollinators need a mix of plants that bloom from spring to fall,” Williamson said.
“When you establish pollinator beds, don’t expect them to be gorgeous for a few years,” Duffey noted. “And you must manage the area because if you don’t introduce fire or mowing, the grasses tend to take over and you loose your flowering plants.”
“Red clover is one of the top listed plants for pollinators because it blooms early,” Williamson said. “And there are native plant nurseries where you can purchase plants to plug into your planting.”
For in-field conservation practices, Filipiak said, it is important for landowners and tenants to work together.
“There are lots of things you can do, but it is more complex, and it requires you to have a good working relationship with your farmer,” she stressed.
“You have to think about your goals for the land and the farmer’s goals for the land,” she said. “And then figure out where those two meet.”
For example, something as simple as lengthening a lease to three years can give a tenant an opportunity to try a cover crop.
“If you want to see more conservation on the land, think about creative ways to reduce the farmer’s risk,” Filipiak advised.
“With an annual cash rent lease, even though you may have had it with the same farmer for 25 years, that farmer is still thinking year to year,” she explained. “He’s only 100 percent certain for that growing season, so there is no incentive for him to put in long-term conservation practices if he doesn’t know if he will have the land next year.”