BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — There’s plenty of good information available from universities about the environmental benefits of conservation practices, but limited data to help farmers determine if it’s a good business decision.
“That was really why we started the Precision Conservation Management program,” said Laura Gentry, PCM co-founder, Illinois Corn Growers Association director of Water Quality Science, and University of Illinois adjunct faculty member.
PCM was launched in 2015 to provide one-on-one assistance to help farmers adopt conservation practices in a financially responsible way and also in response to the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy.
The program, which operates in specific counties in targeted watersheds, is funded by ICGA and the Illinois Soybean Association and through public and private grants and partners.
The Illinois NLRS was released in 2015 with a goal of 45% reduction in total nitrate nitrogen and total phosphorous losses by 2035 and an interim goal of 15% reduction in nitrate nitrogen and 25% reduction in phosphorus by 2025.
“We saw this as something that was very likely to result in regulations on Midwest farmers if we don’t start doing something, and we felt like we needed more of a one-on-one assistance program that also collected more general information to help farmers make good decisions about addressing their nutrient losses from their fields,” Gentry said.
“We are not moving in the right direction towards those NLRS goals. We have a lot of improvements to make and room for improvement, and farmers need to start thinking about what they’re going to do on their agricultural fields to help all of agriculture to avoid agricultural regulations and just to improve our local drinking water quality.”
Data is collected from participating farms and added to a larger data set to share and help make better conservation decisions.
“We don’t want to see any farmers in Illinois or anywhere in the U.S. become so green that they put themselves out of business. That’s just a very bad business model and never the goal of Illinois Soybean or Illinois Corn,” Gentry said.
PCM’s practice standards are cover crops, nitrogen management for corn and tillage.
“This does not indicate that we don’t strongly support other types of conservation practices like edge-of-field practices. It’s just that for PCM farmers and for us in the PCM program, the in-field management is what we focus on,” Gentry noted.
The program is also cognizant of farmers’ time and PCM provides a stipend to compensate for that.
“For the first two years when we’re developing our relationship, we’re finding out more about what’s important to you and we’re building up that database of information that we can share back with you, we’re happy to provide money in the form of a participation payment,” Gentry said.
“In the first year, we’ll ask for two years of data so if we’re signing you up right now, we would collect the 2021 year and 2022, and for that at the time we deliver your wrap report in February we would give you a $500 check. In year two with the third year of data that we collect, we’ll give you a check for $250.”
Every farmer in the program has their own PCM specialist. Every region is assigned a specialist and the specialist works with the farmers in each region and helps them better understand and assess their current environmental and financial standing.
“Within PCM, we give you these meaningful comparisons so you can see how, field by field, your agronomic management practices compare to farmers who are using similar agronomic practices in terms of, say, tillage or nitrogen management. It’ll also allow you to see how you’re faring compared to farmers who are using conservation-focused practices. Our specialist will help you with that,” Gentry said.
“Our partners also allow us to be able to offer a lot of really exclusive program cost-share for cover crops, for nitrogen management, nitrogen reduction if you’re in one of the higher nitrogen application rate ranges, reduced tillage, we have a lot of different program offers to provide to our farmers and our specialists share that with you and help you to learn which ones are right for you.”
PCM has nearly 400 farmers participating in Illinois on about 400,000 acres of farmland and also operates in 10 counties in Kentucky and three counties in Nebraska.
PCM has received more than $18 million to date from federal, corporate and private funds provided by its partners.
In 2021, the farmers in the PCM program implemented 118,418 acres of reduced tillage, 125,081 acres of in-season nitrogen application in corn and 36,080 acres of cover crops.
In terms of the impacts on water quality and soil loss, farmers in 2021 in the PCM program reduced the emissions of nitrate nitrogen by 578,550 pounds, reduced phosphorus losses by 84,040 pounds and sediment losses were reduced in Illinois by 124,875 tons.
“We believe Illinois farmers are capable of meeting the goals of the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy and other water quality, soil health and climate goals. We think that farmers can do it without regulation, but what that requires is that each one of us finds where we can engage and do it. That’s what it takes. It really is teamwork that makes the dream work,” Gentry said.
“So, if your dream is not to be regulated and not to cause regulations to come down on the heads of all the generations after you, we hope that you’ll be thinking about what you can be doing on your own farm and then take the actions and if we can help you, that’s why we’re here.”
More information about the program can be found on the PCM website or by contacting ICGA or ISA.