SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — As part of Illinois Soil Health Week, the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, Association of Illinois Soil and Water Conservation Districts, and advocates from across the state participated in a Soil Health Lobby Day and Rally March 8 at the state capitol and met with lawmakers.
The event was held to advocate for a slate of issues that aim to protect the soil, climate and water quality.
Multiple other in-person and online events coordinated by the Illinois Stewardship Alliance were held March 6-12 in observance of Soil Health Week that focused on a wide range of practices to protect the soil and water while producing food.
Liz Rupel, Illinois Stewardship Alliance lead organizer, said this was the second annual Soil Health Week after an online version in 2022.
There aren’t many legislators who are also farmers, but “we’ve found that soil has this great way of connecting us,” Rupel said.
“I think everybody can make a connection to soil, whether it’s someone growing food in their backyard or a farmer growing food for their community, there are so many ways that soil can really connect us all, and legislators really tap into that, especially hearing from their constituents about why they’re so passionate about soil.”
The group meetings with legislators focused on promoting the Partners for Conservation Reauthorization Act and the Soil Health Week Act, among other issues.
The Partners for Conservation legislation amends the State Finance Act and would include a 10-year funding extension for the program that currently is considered for funding on a year-to-year basis.
The bill would also create the Illinois Healthy Soils and Watershed Initiative to improve the health of soils and the function of watersheds through efforts that support the implementation of the state’s Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy.
“This bill also extends a really vital conservation program, the Partners for Conservation Program, and that is something SWCD’s rely on heavily to give farmers tools to make sure that they have program funding to be able to give out grants in their districts,” Rupel said.
The capitol visitors also urged legislators to pass an amendment to the State Commemorative Dates Act that would designate the first full week of March each year as Soil Health Week that would be observed throughout the state. The goal is to celebrate and raise awareness of the importance of soil health to Illinois agriculture and farmers.
“It is truly an exciting time to be in conservation. The demand for programs and services provided by county-based Soil and Water Conservation Districts has never been greater since the era of the Dust Bowl phenomena which spurred the creation of the districts nationally,” said Grant Hammer, AISWCD executive director.
“The demand for the services SWCD provides at the local level will only continue to grow as policy-makers seek to build resilience on the scale needed in a state that is 90% privately owned with a land mass that’s three-fourths in agriculture production.
“Soils perform vital functions to sustain plant and animal life, regulate water flow, filter and buffer pollutants, cycle nutrients and provide physical stability.
“As the world’s population continues to grow and the demand for food production continues to rise, careful natural resource management and planning is needed. Keeping our soil healthy and productive is of paramount importance to insuring the sustainability into the future.”
The day also featured a “Soil Your Undies Challenge” where a pair of cotton undergarments were buried 2 to 3 inches into healthy soil in early January. The idea is to wait at least 60 days and let the microbes do their work. Depending on the soil health, little should remain of the undergarment following the natural biological degradation.
State Rep. Charlie Meier, R-Okawville, member of House Agriculture Committee, and southern Illinois farmer, had the honors of pulling the undergarment out of the soil and the microbes did their job as advertised. Only the waistband was left.
Meier also was among the guest speakers at the rally.
“This dirt is home. Dirt is part of our family. It’s our legacy. It’s what we are giving to our kids, grandkids, and future generations. It’s what fed the world during World War I — Illinois dirt, Illinois farms. World War II, we fed the world again. Our exports go across the world right now all because of dirt. It took millions of years to get Illinois soil to the place it is now,” Meier said.
“I see a lot of people in this room that work very hard trying to find ways to help us protect our soils, and to make sure we’re not losing our nutrients down the river. No farmer wants to pay for fertilizer or chemicals to just go down the Mississippi River and into the Gulf of Mexico. We want to keep it here. We don’t want to have to buy as much.
“I applaud everybody in this room that make sure that we have less runoff. We like to look at water that’s clear, where we can see the fish swimming by. We don’t want to see brown, murky water going down our streams when we get that big rain.”
State Sen. Doris Turner, D-Springfield, Senate Ag Committee chair, said soil is an essential natural resource “and Illinois farmers and professionals play a critical role in managing our state soil and water resources.
“From the food we eat to our economy, healthy soil benefits our daily lives. As chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, I want to make sure our farmers are taken care of and our agriculture industry is protected.”
“Sadly, for many, soil is the most ubiquitous and under-represented or under-appreciated substance on earth. Yet in several fascinating ways this miraculous substance holds the key to our life,” said Michael Woods, Illinois Department of Agriculture’s Division of Natural Resources manager.
“Soil helps produce our food and other life-saving medicines and vaccines. Soil also filters and purifies our water, reduces flooding, regulates the atmosphere, and plays a crucial role in driving the carbon and nitrogen cycles.
“It also plays a key tackling effort to address climate change, as it captures and stores vast amounts of carbon. Soil is also one of the most biodiverse habitats on earth.”
Over the past two years, IDOA has leveraged resources to bring over $23 million to the Soil Health Initiative.
“Most notably and in recent efforts we’ve joined together with NRCS to leverage $3.5 million and combine that with $9.4 million in federal funds to bring together over $12 million to advance conservation efforts in Illinois. We’ve done this by hiring 40 conservation planners across the state,” Woods noted.
“This team of conservation planners are primed to support and deliver technical assistance for healthy soil across the state. They will help our state daily showcase the power of soil health.”