The agricultural community continues to be under a considerable amount of pressure, particularly when you consider the approaching deadlines for the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy goals, coupled with increasing consumer demands for regenerative agricultural practices.

This begs the questions: How can producers evaluate and improve their nutrient and soil loss management practices? And how can they then receive recognition for their efforts?

That’s where the S.T.A.R. — Saving Tomorrow’s Agriculture Resources — program comes in. Created by the Champaign Soil and Water Conservation District in 2016, the program uses a free, straight-forward evaluation form to assess a producer’s agronomic and conservation practices on a particular field, such as cover crops and reduced tillage.

Based on those practices, the field is assigned a S.T.A.R. rating from 1 to 5 which producers can then advertise on a sign posted in their field.

Unlike traditional cost-share programs where the extension of the conservation practice is largely reliant on incoming funds, S.T.A.R. takes an alternative approach, relying on friendly competition and positive promotion to encourage the adoption and continuation of conservation practices.

More recently, the Wabash Valley Stewardship Alliance — a partnership between Farm Bureau, Wabash Valley Service Company and the Agriculture Department of Wabash Valley College — has launched the Southeastern Illinois S.T.A.R. program.

The Southeastern Illinois S.T.A.R. utilizes a modified evaluation form from the original S.T.A.R. program to better reflect southeastern Illinois farming practices.

Mike Wilson, from the Wabash Valley Service Company and WVSA, noted that, “The reasoning behind us wanting to get involved with S.T.A.R. is that in our nine counties there (have) varying levels of support from the local SWCDs because of budget constraints … Our aim is to help SWCDs.”

The nine counties involved are Crawford, Edwards, Gallatin, Hamilton, Lawrence, Richland, Wabash, Wayne and White.

Furthermore, Wilson said they want farmers to be able to use S.T.A.R. as a tool to gauge their level of compliance with the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy.

“It is near impossible to know if you are making progress with the NLRS without some benchmark to measure success,” he said.

Steve Fulling, a producer and member of WVSA, further noted that “with NLRS, we need all farmers to be aware of what it is going on and decide where they can make changes to hopefully avoid regulations.”

The program also helps make the general public aware that farmers do care about the environment, and more specifically, their soil health.

“Dirt is something under your fingernails, while soil is an active living thing that we cherish and hope to improve,” Fulling said.

Currently, there are over 25 counties licensed to offer the S.T.A.R. program. Jennifer Woodyard, Watershed Outreach Associate for the University of Illinois Extension, noted the benefits of continued expansion of the S.T.A.R. program, as “it encourages farmers and landowners to think on a field-by-field basis about additional conservation practices they could implement, not only to improve water quality, but to improve the general health and productivity of their land.”

Farmers interested in participating in S.T.A.R. can find more information and the free evaluation form online.

If you want to learn more about S.T.A.R., join us for the Soil Fertility webinar on Feb. 28, which will be hosted by Extension offices across Illinois. Call me at 217-826-5422 or email jsoule2@illinois.edu to find a hosting location near you.

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