Farm Progress

Conservation experts aim to move farmers to adopt more conservation practices with a rating system, encouraging communication (and possibly new requirements) with landowners.

Austin Keating, Associate Editor, Prairie Farmer

October 3, 2018

3 Min Read
CONSERVATION RATING: Illinois farmer Steve Stierwalt (left) displays his 4-STAR conservation rating from the STAR program with Joe Rothermel, chairman of the Champaign County Soil and Water Conservation District.

Sadorus, Ill., farmer Steve Stierwalt estimates 6% to 8% of farmers are using conservation techniques on a regular basis to improve soil health, while another 6% to 8% aren’t interested. In his mind, that means there’s a large group in the middle that could be persuaded to voluntarily pick up more conservation practices.

“How do you get to that big group in the middle to really affect water quality and all the rest?” asks Stierwalt, president of the Association of Illinois Soil and Water Conservation Districts. “The answer is some friendly competition.”

Stierwalt and others working with the Champaign County Soil and Water Conservation District are now in their second year of promoting conservation competition with the Saving Tomorrow’s Agriculture Resources program, or STAR. The program distributes conservation evaluation papers to SWCD offices throughout the state for farmers to fill out.

The free, five-minute form results in a 1 to 5 STAR rating for one field, which can then be commemorated with a sign that advertises the rating.

Nearly 80 farmers from 15 counties in Illinois participated in the program in its first year. More counties and farmers are signing up this fall for the program’s second year.

“This is not a cost-share program. We’ve had a lot of history with that, and once the cost-share money runs out, the practices seem to stop also,” says Joe Rothermel, chairman of the Champaign County SWCD. “This is a totally different approach.”

Farmers who dip their feet into conservation agriculture with a portion of their land are rewarded with a rating. When they receive it, they’re also shown SWCD-approved practices that can increase the rating. The more practices, the more stars — though the suite of approved options varies by region.

In the central region of Illinois where tile drainage is highly popular, nitrates are the target pollutant, and as such, overwintering cover crops are one of the best options.

“You get down south and phosphorus is the issue,” Rothermel says.

The program has worked with nine county Farm Bureaus in the Wabash River Valley to create a rating sheet for phosphorus.

“They’ve really grabbed onto this,” Rothermel concludes.

Generating value
The rating’s main value right now is that it helps farmers and landowners evaluate their operations, Stierwalt says.

“Landowners are interested in conservation, but they’ve never been empowered to be able to talk to their tenant about it. But with the STAR program or something like it, if they put in the contract that you need to at least be a 3-STAR farmer, there’s real power there,” he says.

Part of the plan is to eventually verify up to 10% of all Illinois fields in the STAR program. The hope is to also eventually add value to the rating from a sustainable food production standpoint.

“What if PepsiCo would say, we want our corn to be at least a 3-STAR, sustainably raised product? If there’s value there, we can furnish them with fields until they got to those 5 million bushels or however many they need,” Stierwalt says.



About the Author(s)

Austin Keating

Associate Editor, Prairie Farmer

Austin Keating is the newest addition to the Farm Progress editorial team working as an associate editor for Prairie Farmer magazine. Austin was born and raised in Mattoon and graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a degree in journalism. Following graduation in 2016, he worked as a science writer and videographer for the university’s supercomputing center. In June 2018, Austin obtained a master’s degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, where he was the campus correspondent for Planet Forward and a Comer scholar.

Austin is passionate about distilling agricultural science as a service for readers and creating engaging content for viewers. During his time at UI, he won two best feature story awards from the student organization JAMS — Journalism Advertising and Media Students — as well as a best news story award.

Austin lives in Charleston. He can sometimes be found at his family’s restaurant the Alamo Steakhouse and Saloon in Mattoon, or on the Embarrass River kayaking. Austin is also a 3D printing and modeling hobbyist.

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