DECATUR — Illinois farmers are losing their soil at record rates. Conservationists know how to stop the problem, but they say improvements aren’t happening because of an industry-wide trend. Farmers don’t own the land they work on.
Nonfarming landlords own 80 percent of U.S. farmland, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This means that the people who farm the land do not have an incentive to care for the future of the soil, said Cassandra Wilcoxen with the Macon County Soil and Water Conservation District.
“The land owners may not know things about farming,” Wilcoxen said. “It is harder for the person renting the land to put in the money and the effort to improve it if they do not know they are going to keep farming it.”
Topsoil erosion creates problems for the future of the fertile farmland in Illinois. The land becomes less fertile the more topsoil it loses. And erosion was at the most severe point in decades in 2016.
The problem has not improved much, Wilcoxen said. 2017 was also a bad year for erosion, she said. Wind storms swept through the area picking up loose soil and spreading it around. The soil ends up in creeks, streams and Lake Decatur.
Wilcoxen runs the Lake Decatur Watershed Program. Her job is to keep as much sediment out of the lake as possible.
“Our job is to keep sediment out of Lake Decatur,” she said. “We help farmers address the problems they have, that saves money for Decatur residents.”
Over many years, erosion created a $91 million problem in Lake Decatur, when soil runoff filled the bottom of the lake with sediment. When a drought came in 2012, the water supply could not support normal operations. The city decided to dig the lake deeper to remove the soil.
The 20 years of projects by the conservation district are working, said Lake Supervisor Joe Nihiser. He’s noticed less sediment build-up in recent years. In basin six on Lake Decatur, there is a soil retention dam area to catch eroded sediment. In recent years, Nihiser said he has not noticed much material in the area.
“I can say that through the conservational efforts over the years it has improved,” he said.
Erosion occurs because modern farming practices loosen topsoil. Farmers who work their land bare leave a prime target for heavy winds and rains to carry away the soil. Healthy soil will not erode as fast because there is organic matter to keep the soil in place.
“You can tell if your soil is healthy or not by how much rain your soil can hold in the big rain event,” she said.
Soil health is a broad topic, but there are four main areas to focus on according to the Macon County Soil & Water Conservation District.
Four principles of soil health:
- Minimize disturbance
- Maximize soil cover
- Maximize biodiversity of plants
- Maximize the presence of living roots
All four principles are hard for farmers to achieve, Wilcoxen said. Few farms use strip till, Wilcoxen said. Because of this, they created a study with Dennis Bork who farms east of Decatur near Oakley. There they research the difference in strip tillage and conventional tillage practices. The goal is to study economic benefits as well as the impact on soil health, Bork said.
“With crop prices, margins are slim in farming right now," he said. "So if you can save some input costs or save some money it helps with those margins and helps you to be profitable."
Bork divided one field into four plots. He farms using conventional tillage, conventional tillage with cover crops, strip till and strip till with cover crops.
Strip till or no till planting practices leave as much of the soil undisturbed as possible. Conventional tilling disturbs the entire field, while strip till disturbs only part. No till does not cause any disturbance, Wilcoxen said.
The yield has been the same for both the strip till and the conventional till, Bork said. There are labor, fuel and fertilizer savings with strip till, he said. The economic benefit comes because he needs less of each resource.
“On the strip till you have lower equipment costs, lower manpower costs and lower fuel costs,” he said.
Cover crops, strip till and no till practices break up compact soil and create a space for organic matter. This allows water, air and nutrients to filter down to create healthier soil, Bork said.
It took about three years to see a difference, Bork said. But now, he notices the soil with cover crops is healthier. He said the root systems of plants with cover crops penetrate much deeper into the soil. The conventional root systems hit a plateau causing the roots to grow sideways instead of down.
One drawback is the different farming practices need different equipment. For the study, he hires someone to strip till the field and shares the cost with the conservation district.
“It is an economy where you can’t have every piece of equipment sitting in the shed,” he said.
As harvest approaches, conservationists are encouraging farmers to use management tactics that will protect their land. For more information on farming practices or cost assistance, Wilcoxen said people should call the district at 217-877-5670, Ext. 3.
Producers have made improvements, Wilcoxen said. But they require a change to the way farmers have worked for decades.
“Change is not always easy to make,” she said. “It is hard to get out of what you’ve been doing your whole life and how you manage your land.”