SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — A catastrophic event that was witnessed from the Great Plains to the U.S. Capitol over 80 years ago resulted in efforts that still have positive impacts on farms today.

Beginning in 1932, persistent drought conditions on the Great Plains caused widespread crop failures and exposed the region’s soil to blowing wind resulting in the Dust Bowl.

A large dust storm on May 11, 1934, swept fine soil particles eastward and over Washington, D.C., and 300 miles out into the Atlantic Ocean.

The Dust Bowl continued in 1935 and on March 6 and again on March 21, dust clouds passed over Washington and darkened the sky just as Congress commenced hearings on a proposed soil conservation law.

President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Soil Conservation Act in April 1935, creating the Soil Conservation Service in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

That was followed by the Standard State Soil Conservation Districts Law that was sent to governors in all states as a blueprint to form Soil Conservation Districts to provide local guidance and opportunities for farmers.

Today, over 3,000 Soil and Water Conservation Districts, including 97 in Illinois, provide boots on the ground in a wide variety of ways.

Rising from the Dust Bowl, SWCDs’ roles at the state and county levels continue to fill its main mission of helping local residents conserve land, water, forests, wildlife and natural resources.

More than 15,000 unpaid volunteers serve in elected and appointed positions on SWCD governing board. They work directly with more than 2.3 million cooperating land managers nationwide and their efforts touch more than 778 million acres of private land.

The Association of Illinois Soil and Water Conservation Districts was formed over 70 years ago to serve its 97 member SWCDs and Grant Hammer, AISWCD executive director, spoke about the value and activities at the state and local levels during a recent interview.

What is AISWCD’s role in working with county districts?

The mission of the state association is to represent and empower the SWCDs of Illinois. Like many associations, there are different ways to do so.

One of our primary purposes is advocacy both in a policy sense and a legislative sense. Member relations, communications are all other important areas, as well.

AISWCD hosts its 71st annual summer training conference and meeting July 14-16 in Springfield that features a wide range of agricultural-related organizations, commodity groups, government officials, farmers and non-profit representatives. Nearly 400 attended last year’s event.

The state and county SWCDs have been actively involved in working with other groups such as The Wetlands Initiative, American Farmland Trust, Illinois Council on Best Management Practices and other groups on projects including constructed wetlands, saturated buffers, bioreactors and drainage water management.

We’ve always had strong relationship both with traditional agriculture groups as well as environmental groups. I really want to renew and invest in those relationships because I believe getting conservation done requires strong partnerships.

The work of SWCDs couldn’t be more important these days in light of Illinois’ Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy. The SWCDs truly are the boots on the ground promoting and implementing those best management practices that support the state strategy.

The 25th annual Illinois Envirothon competition was held earlier this month at the 4-H Camp in Monticello. The five-student team from Benet Academy in Lisle won the state competition. This was among the National Conservation Foundation’s Envirothons held in 43 states and five Canadian provinces. What does this competition entail?

The state is divided by our 16 land use councils which is an AISWCD government structure. Land use councils are comprised of different counties.

Each land use council holds a local competition and the winning teams advance to the state competition. It’s a great educational event. It’s really cool to see the future agricultural and environmental leaders of tomorrow kind of test their mettle.

The teams are tested and judged on competency in subject matter including soils, aquatics, forestry, wildlife and other environmental issues that change from year to year.

These kids come well prepared, well coached, and it’s fantastic to see.

The Saving Tomorrow’s Agricultural Resources program through SWCD is a new initiative that’s gaining interest.

The S.T.A.R. program was developed by the Champaign County Soil and Water Conservation District. It’s led by a diverse group of conservation organizations.

The association’s role is we don’t manage it but we certainly promote it. It’s promotes sustainable agriculture and of course we’re supportive of that and the association is assisting in a number of ways.

The program was developed in 2016 as a means to contribute to the important goals outlined in the state’s Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy, a plan developed jointly by the Illinois Department of Agriculture and Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

Since its creation, the S.T.A.R. program has been adopted in several areas of the state by a multitude of organizations, including many soil and water conservation districts.

S.T.A.R. is a free statewide tool to assist farm operators and land owners in evaluating their nutrient and soil loss management practices on individual fields.

The S.T.A.R. program encourages farmers and landowners to use management practices and decisions that will reduce the nutrient and soil losses on their fields, and in return, they are provided recognition with a field sign recognizing their level of commitment to conservation.

SWCDs are funded through partnership with the state of Illinois, local support through fundraisers and federal funding. The organizations were hit hard with the state’s recent budget impasses. What is the current outlook?

The past few years were difficult years. They were lean years for the SWCDs with the state’s budget impasse. Nearly one-half of SWCD employees either were let go or left for their own reasons, security and so forth. Many SWCD employees lost health insurance and benefits because districts simply couldn’t afford to provide that benefit anymore.

But with the passage of the budget last year the districts have really turned a corner. I think those days are behind us. The districts continue to stabilize, rebuild and look to the future to get the important conservation work done like the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy.

Everyone craves stability. That will allow individual districts across the state to make long-term decisions in terms of staffing, mission and focus.

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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