Flowing along Illinois’ borders and through its interior are more than 120,000 miles of rivers and streams. Many, if not most, of these waterways exist within or adjacent to agricultural land. This is not surprising as agricultural land covers approximately 75 percent of Illinois’ surface area, with more than 60 percent planted in soybeans and corn.
What do these statistics mean for watershed groups working to protect, conserve and restore their local watershed and water resources? In addition to working with citizens, landowners and government, watershed groups need to engage more “non-traditional” groups to achieve long- term watershed improvement. In Illinois, farmers and ranchers are essential partners to include in watershed collaborative efforts.
In reaching out to the agricultural community, educational tools and incentive programs are as close as your county United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) office. Under the USDA, the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) administers a variety of voluntary programs designed to conserve and protect soil and water quality, restore and improve wetlands, grasslands and wildlife habitat primarily on agricultural lands. In addition to a wealth of written program information, NRCS staff are invaluable technical partners in developing outreach efforts to farmers and ranchers.
Unfortunately, even with the financial and technical assistance NRCS offers, a minority of Illinois’ agricultural lands are enrolled in USDA conservation programs. Collaboration with farmers and ranchers presents a win-win solution to lessening the adverse impacts agricultural activities can have on riparian and other water-dependent ecosystems. Farmers receive financial incentives and technical expertise on conservation practices that will preserve the natural resources they depend upon; these practices will then improve the quality of riparian ecosystems and waters for the benefit of the people, fish and wildlife in the watershed.
Despite all the benefits to be gained by enrolling in USDA programs, there is not full awareness of them among agricultural producers. Watershed groups can play an instrumental role in education and ultimately participation by farmers and ranchers in these programs.
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To visit the Illinois Natural Resources Conservation Service website go to: www.il.nrcs.usda.gov/
History of the NRCS and Program Summaries
FEDERAL AND STATE FARMLAND CONSERVATION PROGRAMS
In 1935, the federal Soil Conservation Act (SCA) was passed to provide assistance to farmers suffering from extreme soil erosion on their farmlands. The SWA authorized what is now called the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Included in the NRCS mission goals are achieving productive, high-quality soils, improving and maintaining water quality and quantity, and providing healthy communities for humans and animals. To achieve these goals, NRCS offers several programs that provide technical and financial assistance to farmers to enable them to conserve their farmland.
Like the NRCS, the Farm Service Agency (FSA) originated from programs developed under the SWA, and is one branch of the USDA. One of the conservation programs offered by the FSA is the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), which is jointly administered by the FSA and the State of Illinois. The CREP program covers the Illinois and Kaskaskia river watersheds and seeks to protect water resources and environmentally sensitive habitat.
Below is a partial listing of NRCS and FSA programs available, and their websites:
The CSP 1) provides rewards to farmers who already have included stewardship practices into farmland management, and 2) offers incentives to farmers who enhance their current level of stewardship. The program’s particular focus is on maintaining soil and water quality.
Benefits to farmers/participants: reduced soil erosion and nutrient runoff, improved soil and water quality, enhanced wildlife habitat.
The CRP program is under the authority of the FSA. The CRP is designed to first, prevent erosion, and second, to improve water quality and enhance wildlife habitat by conserving “environmentally sensitive” land. Farmers who enroll in the CRP agree to plant “resource-conserving vegetative covers” on a portion of their land. The CRP differs from the CSP as it seeks participants who will establish new areas of protected land, as opposed to CSP enrollees, who already have land stewardship practices in place.
Benefits to farmers: improved soil and water quality, protection of groundwater, streambank stabilization, reduced soil erosion and nutrient runoff, enhanced wildlife habitat.
The EQIP program focuses on achieving environmental benefits that have been deemed “national priorities.” National priorities include: 1) reducing soil erosion and sedimentation from unacceptable levels on agricultural land; 2) conserving ground and surface water resources; 3) reducing groundwater contamination; and 4) reducing non-point source pollution. EQIP provides financial and technical assistance to farmers and ranchers to implement a variety of conservation practices that improve both agricultural production and environmental quality on working lands.
Benefits to farmers: Depending on the farmer’s conservation plan, benefits can range from improved soil and water quality to reduced flood and wind damage to farmsteads and fields.
The goal of the GRP program is to protect and conserve grassland, pastureland and shrubland in order to maintain working grazing operations and enhance the plant and animal diversity of these lands. Landowners may either grant an easement or agree to rent sections of their property in exchange for limiting activities and developing restoration plans for the selected property.
Benefits to farmers: improved forage quality, reduction in invasive species, economic and environmental benefits such as improved water quality from enhanced wildlife habitat.
The particular objectives of CREP are to protect environmentally sensitive land and to restore and enhance wildlife habitat. CREP is a state-level program, administered by the FSA, offering private landowners in the Illinois and Kaskaskia river watersheds financial incentives and technical assistance for enhancing wildlife habitat through retiring land from agricultural production. Areas eligible for CREP include all or part of 52 counties in Illinois.
Benefits to farmers/participants: protection of groundwater, improved water quality from reduced erosion and nutrient runoff, increased aesthetic and economic value of land from enhanced wildlife habitat.
Wetlands provide a variety of environmental benefits, including flood protection, improved water quality, recharge of groundwater and habitat for wetland-dependant wildlife. The goal of the WRP is to purchase farmlands that have the greatest potential for successful wetland restoration; once purchased, an easement is created for the land but does not affect the landowner’s title or control of access on the land. In fact, the landowner may use the restored area for recreational hunting, fishing, or nature-based tourist activities.
Benefits to farmers: flood control, payment for land that is marginally productive for agricultural purposes, enhanced wildlife habitat, improved water quality resulting from wetland’s filtering of nutrients, chemicals and sediment, groundwater recharge, increased aesthetic and economic value of the land.
The WHIP program offers financial and technical assistance to private landowners for the specific purpose of developing and improving wildlife habitat on their land.
Benefits to farmers: while improved agricultural production is not an objective of the WHIP program, establishing wildlife habitat adjacent to agricultural land and drainage waterways could help reduce field nutrient and sediment runoff, and damage to banks and channels.
Photo credits: Bob Nichols, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service