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My family has been farming in Macon County since 1867. My son Chase is the fifth generation to farm this land. I don’t want him to be the last.

I was a little boy in the late 1950s when I saw my first tank of anhydrous ammonia. My dad told me it was nitrogen, a food source for corn, and you could visibly see the difference it made. My dad was forward-looking, always experimenting to improve the farm. Back then, that meant with better drainage and heavy applications of fertilizer.

Two generations later, it’s me and my son doing the experiments. We started thinking about a different direction after the 2012 drought, which made us short on hay for our cattle. I had been reading about cover crops, so we tried interseeding rye between standing corn. We had a knee-high cover crop by Thanksgiving and didn’t have to buy a bale of hay until mid-January.

Happy anniversary to you, Orange and Blue

We really felt like we’d hit a home run, especially when we saw the yield bump in the following year’s corn crop.

The success made us want to learn more, taking us on a deep dive into soil health. Our own forward-looking plans include cover crops, reduced tillage, and weaning ourselves off those very fertilizers that my dad was proud to pioneer.

We’re discovering that improving the health of our soil is the key to keeping our farm thriving. More, focusing on soil health doesn’t just help ourselves, it’s good for the whole region.

Our soil literally keeps our communities grounded. We only need to look at the shores of our lake to see the evidence. Local industry uses millions of gallons from Lake Decatur daily and residents rely on it for drinking water.

Dredging the lake has taken six years and at least $91 million. Nearly 11 million cubic yards of material are estimated to have been removed, increasing the lake’s capacity by 30 percent. Without dredging, the lake was on track to dry up -- and businesses and the community would have dried up right along with it.

The Sangamon River watershed that drains into Lake Decatur is about 925 square miles. The material we’ve just dredged out of our lake was their topsoil; it was some of the world’s richest farmland, built over a million years and washed downstream in less than a century.

Dredging the lake has bought us some time. But how are we changing what we’re doing in those 925 square miles now to prevent the lake from filling up again?

My son and I have been involved with the Soil Health Partnership for five years. We’re learning about how new practices both big and small will keep our soil in place, improve yields and even get us a price premium.

After four decades of farming, old habits can be hard to change. At the same time, it’s renewed my enthusiasm for the work I’ve been doing all these years.

That’s why I’m excited about a program piloted last year in Iowa that provides a $5 reward on crop insurance premiums for every acre planted with cover crops. Even if every farmer who plants rye or winter wheat doesn’t get as interested in soil health as we have, cover crops are a key strategy for holding soil in place year to year. Illinois ought to replicate this program, which has support from a wide range of Illinois farm and conservation groups.

It’s a testimony to this region’s rich soil that five generations of my family have lived and grown on our farm. To keep not just my farm but the whole community prospering for many more generations, we need to stop washing that soil downstream and start caring for it like it’s more than just dirt.

David Brown farms with his brother Joe and son Chase in Central Illinois and is farm editor for WAND-TV in Decatur.

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