December 10, 2023

45 years of AgriNews: Conservation efforts ramp up

Editor’s Note: AgriNews is celebrating its anniversary by reviewing some of the top agricultural issues over the past 45 years.

DWIGHT, Ill. — The 1970s was a pivotal decade for agriculture, not only for the economic struggles that would follow, but also for concerted efforts to step-up soil conservation efforts.

Commodity prices spiked in 1973 after the Soviet Union signed a substantial three-year trade agreement to purchase U.S. grain. Grain exports doubled from 1972 to 1973.

In response to crop prices increasing, then-USDA Secretary Earl Butz encouraged farmers to “plant fencerow to fencerow.” It more or less discouraged conservation practices and the moldboard plow was part of the regular management.

Butz also released production controls, including the annual set-aside acres, to encourage more acres of cash crops.

Environmental groups took notice as reports of increased soil erosion spread. Environmentalists and allies in Congress questioned the effectiveness of existing soil conservation programs in light of the fencerow-to-fencerow trend.

As a result, the Soil and Water Resources Conservation Act was signed into law 45 years ago. The law provides the U.S. Department of Agriculture broad strategic assessment and planning authority for the conservation, protection and enhancement of soil, water and related natural resources.

It also called for USDA to “develop a national soil and water conservation program to give direction to USDA soil and water conservation activities.”

Since the fencerow-to-fencerow days, U.S. conservation tillage acres have increased from 44 million in 1973 to about 202 million acres in 2021, 104 million of which are no-till.

Local Efforts

Lee Bunting, a fifth-generation farmer from Dwight, joined the Livingston County Soil and Water Conservation District board a year after the resources conservation legislation. He has served the district for 44 years, now as county SWCD chairman.

Bunting noted the changes in conservation efforts in his farming career and the proactive role area producers have played in improving soil and water quality.

“Back in the 1970s when I got on the board, everybody was moldboard plowing their cornstalks and even plowing some soybean stubble,” Bunting said.

There weren’t a number of incentives four decades ago to implement conservation practices compared to today, and it was up to farmers to apply those practices on their own.

However, there was an indirect incentive by way of the 1979 oil crisis that moved farmers to rethink their tillage practices.

The energy crisis in 1979 caused a drop in oil production in the wake of the Iranian Revolution.

Although the global oil supply only decreased by about 4%, the oil markets’ reaction raised crude oil drastically over the next 12 months, more than doubling to $39.5 per barrel, equivalent to $143.58 today. The price spike resulted in fuel shortages and long lines at U.S. gas stations.

“In the late 1970s and early 1980s there was an issue getting diesel fuel and I think that helped us along as far as doing more chisel plowing or not plowing the stalks. You needed less diesel fuel if you chisel-plowed rather than plowing. It saved on time and fuel and that helped a lot, and it kept the soil erosion down, too,” Bunting noted.

“The first thing was to put the moldboard plow away and then we got into no-tilling. I think Allis-Chalmers was one of the first to make a no-till soybean and corn planter with the coulters in the front.

“Someone in Livingston County had one and I used it on a few no-till acres of corn and soybean stubble.

“Technology hadn’t really caught up with no-tilling because you’d use a lot more herbicide and different herbicides rather than tillage to keep the weeds down.”

During his early years with SWCD, Bunting said the county was awarded an Illinois Environmental Protection Agency grant to set up monitoring stations to test for wind erosion.

“We did that for three or four years and made comparisons between the fields that were plowed and the fields that were left untilled or chisel-plowed,” he added.

In-Field Research

Like many other county SWCDs across Illinois, Livingston County has been a focus of several research efforts focusing on soil health and water quality.

“Livingston County is in a unique situation. We have the Vermilion River going through the county and that’s a drinking water supply for Pontiac and Streator. It then goes to the Illinois and Mississippi rivers and down to the Gulf of Mexico where the problems are with the pollution is in the Gulf,” Bunting said.

“We are very important as far as keeping the water safe for the people of Pontiac and Streator and also maintaining productivity. We have some good soils, too. We need to maintain that productivity plus also watch what we use so we don’t lose it going down the streams.”

With environmental concerns growing across the nation, there have been farmer-led groups proactive in finding solutions.

The Five-mile Creek Project in the 1990s focused on nutrient loss into the creek that eventually flows into the Vermilion River.

The Indian Creek Watershed Project through the Conservation Technology Information Center began in 2012 and was then rolled into the larger Vermilion Headwaters Project in 2018 that is now ongoing in multiple central Illinois counties.

The programs have provided boots on the ground to assist farmers in implementing conservation practices and seeing the end-results.

“We’ve had very good support with those programs. We’ve put in wetlands, bioreactors and other conservation practices and set up test programs so they can monitor and see how they’re actually working and tell the story of how these projects do help,” Bunting explained.

Strategy Goals

In the midst of those ongoing watershed projects, the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy was released in 2015 that includes a 10-year plan to reduce nitrate losses by 15% and total phosphorus loss by 25% by 2025 with a final goal of reducing losses by 45% for both.

“We’re getting close to 2025 and it depends on who you talk to, but I don’t think we’re really making the progress as far as getting down to reducing those amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus that we need to be, but we’re still working on it,” Bunting said.

“There are a lot of different groups and districts that are promoting nutrient loss strategies and promoting cover crops. Soil health is a big thing now.

“This last year, the state came up with $3.5 million in new funding for Soil and Water Conservation Districts to help with implementing the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy. I haven’t seen anything on what the opportunities are as far as applying for those dollars to get those programs to the local level. That’s kind of a work in progress yet.”

Bunting reflected on the changes he’s seen in the rural landscape and the transition to cover crops and other efforts to improve soil and keep the nutrients out of the streams and rivers.

“Back in the 1960s, everyone had few cows and had some hay ground and pasture ground. Then corn and soybeans took over and we lost a lot of that pasture ground and hayfields,” he said.

“Now we’re not only reducing soil erosion, but getting healthier soils by keeping cover crops in place. That ties up the nitrogen and other fertilizers and keeps them in place for the next crop.

“We have to maintain productivity. We have to grow a crop and provide feed and fiber for the United States and the world, but it’s doing it in a way that maintains our soil productivity, too.

“We’re making progress with the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy, keeping our streams clean while maintaining our production.”

Tom Doran

Tom C. Doran

Field Editor