April 14, 2024

AISWCD director touts conservation efforts, possibilities

Michael Woods

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Daily in-person and virtual events packed the Illinois Soil Health Week docket March 4-10, including two days at the state capitol.

Michael Woods, who took the helm as Association of Illinois Soil and Water Conservation Districts executive director two months ago, stressed the importance of celebrating soil not only for a designated week, but throughout the year.

“In Illinois, we need to continue to celebrate our most important, most vital natural resources that drive the agriculture industry — soil and water,” Woods said.

“Soil Health Week is all about celebrating that soil foundation because the soil and water interplay is an important aspect of what builds and drives our economy. We’re here to celebrate the story, bring soil to light, and to help bring the most common thing that we see every day to how it impacts us in our lives.”

Soil Health Lobby Day was held midweek with advocates meeting with legislators not only to tell their story, but also thank lawmakers for the work that’s been done.

“We can interact with legislators with our hands horizontally or vertically. We’re not always asking for money. Sometimes we need to share the celebration and the impact of the things they have provided us,” Woods said.

“For example, SB1701 last year was a vital piece of legislation that really opened up the opportunity to have further conversations about how important soil health is.”

SB1701 provides state funding for the Partners for Conservation Program, a long-term initiative to protect natural resources.

“It’s important for us to be here to celebrate what we’ve done over the past year and to showcase how we’re going to continue to invest the vital resources that the state is investing into all of the associations dedicated to soil and water,” Woods said.

STAR Celebrated

A Saving Tomorrow’s Agricultural Resources rally was held in the Capitol Rotunda the day after Soil Health Lobby Day with SWCD representatives from across the state.

“The STAR rally was a rally to bring together people to celebrate the impact we’ve had with our Soil Health Week legislation,” Woods said.

“We’re also celebrating our Capacity Building Initiative where we’re bringing 40 people across the state to do conservation planning. We want to celebrate what they’re doing in our local communities.”

The Capacity Building Initiative was created through the Illinois Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

As part of the Agroecology + Innovation Matters initiative, conservation planners work with farmers to enhance soil health, reduce nutrient loss, maintain clean waters and bolster the advancement of best conservation practices.

“If we’re going to put more practices on the ground, we need more capacity. We want to showcase those that are out here in the field with our Soil and Water Conservation Districts, our frontline boots on the ground are making a difference and we can continue to do more,” Woods said.

The STAR program, originally created in 2017 with support from the Champaign County SWCD, expanded to a national organization last year.

The initiative educates and encourages farmers, ranchers and landowners to employ conservation management practices that improve water quality and soil health.

“The STAR program is doing wonderful. I think it really humanizes this element of in-the-field practices and celebrates those successes. It also celebrates and rewards our producers that are willing to take that little bit of a risk to be able to look at how they’re going to shift the way that they produce things,” Woods said.

“We want to continue to celebrate STAR. We think STAR is a unique tool that the association and all of our partners continue to advance and to celebrate the success of putting more conservation in the field.”

New Post

Woods also addressed other soil health and water quality issues with AgriNews during the lobby day festivities.

Woods stepped into the AISWCD post in January after serving as IDOA’s Division of Natural Resources manager.

“We’re taking on the big opportunities here to make a difference. I am so passionate about what Soil and Water Conservation Districts offer our state. It’s a story that we need to continue to celebrate,” he said.

“In 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt put forward a call to all the governors across the nation to create Soil and Water Conservation Districts, and he specifically said, ‘A nation that destroys its soils, destroys itself.’

“A big part of something like that is an outcome of what FDR envisioned 87 years ago to now having my ability to put a footprint on the 21st century and how we move forward is exciting. I couldn’t ask for a better situation. I always say that I just have a new title, a new organization, with the same commitment and passion to conservation.

“I’ve got a great group of people to work with. We’re already trying to elevate and add new positions to the AISWCD so that we can be of better service to the 97 districts throughout the state.

“They need support behind the scenes because the way that they do business now is significantly different than it was 87 years. They need more support with communications, education, grant development, human resource development, talent acquisition, talent development, training, and that’s where the association comes in.”

Nutrient Strategy

The Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy released its biennial report in late 2023, and the state is falling short of its goal to reduce the phosphorus load by 25% and the nitrate-nitrogen load by 15% by next year. The state’s NLRS long-term goal is a 45% reduction in both nitrogen and total phosphorus loads.

Woods was asked what his thoughts are considering where the state is in relation to those reduction goals in the strategy.

“We know that it’s basically a strategy, and what it hasn’t done is specific tactics yet. We’re working on some of those efforts of how we implement new practices. We’ve achieved engaging the innovators. We need now to move into those middle adopters and to the late adopters to get them to engage that,” he said.

“So, even with our display here at the capitol all week called the ‘Art and the Science of Soil Health,’ we know the science. We have strong best management practices that can help to address and curb much of that nutrient loss that we experience across the state.

“What we need to focus on now also is the art of it. The art of working with the producers so that they can take that risk, or be educated or to elevate the art of putting the conservation into the field.

“We believe that it’s a combination of arts of science, the human art, the social science side is an art. Farming is an art, and so we need to help provide that support if we’re going to meet the goals of the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy.

“We know that NLRS was very clear in this past biennial report that we are lagging behind in the non-point source sector, the agricultural sector.

“We have about 4% of our total farmland in cover crops. We need more. And how that’s going to happen is not just with the science — it’s the art of working with people, our conservation capacity building program, Soil and Water Conservation Districts, all those coming to together are going to be able to engage our producers.”

Popular Program

If the response to IDOA’s Fall Covers for Spring Savings program is any indication, farmers are willing to use cover crops if incentivized.

“The allotted acres filled up in 12 hours this year. We’re excited with the fact that this year there is some legislation being pushed forward to expand that program quite a bit, up to 500,000 acres. Right now, we’re at about 140,000 acres. We need the opportunity to develop that,” Woods said.

“We know that the pandemic cover crop program showcased that the appetite is there. We had over 400,000 acres in that program. So, I think together we can do it. It’s going to take some new energy.

“One of the things I like to stress is that the current Fall Cover for Spring Savings has had a lot of success with very little effort. Imagine if we can continue to band together like we’re seeing here at this rally and we can easily elevate to 500,000 acres.

“I also contend that we need to have a goal of 40 by 2040, 40% of the agricultural lands need to be covered by 2040. That’s my personal goal that I think we need to be looking at. That’s about 10.8 million acres.

“We need to achieve that. Right now, we’re at 1.37 million acres, and I think just together with the art of engaging the producer we can find a mechanism that allows us to elevate our conservation in the field.”

Tom Doran

Tom C. Doran

Field Editor