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State of Illinois cuts conservation funding

Funding for front-line conservation staff has been cut in half for 2025, crippling the state’s ability to secure federal conservation dollars.

Holly Spangler, Prairie Farmer Senior Editor

June 10, 2024

5 Min Read
A sign for the Association of Illinois Soil and Water Conservation Districts
SWCD HELP: Michael Woods, executive director of the Association of Illinois Soil and Water Conservation Districts, says the state has cut their operational funding in half. “If agriculture brings so many dollars into the state, why would you want to then impact its long-term sustainability and ability to make an economic impact?” he says. Holly Spangler

At a Glance

  • Illinois budget comes in at $53.1 billion but cuts $4 million from conservation funding.
  • Cuts affect salaries for local staff who help landowners implement conservation measures.
  • State is far from meeting Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy goals for 2025 for nitrogen and phosphorus.

Conservation efforts in Illinois took a hit in the $53.1 billion budget passed last week by the General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. JB Pritzker.

The operation budget for soil and water conservation districts across Illinois was cut nearly in half, according to Michael Woods, executive director for the Association of Illinois Soil and Water Conservation Districts. Those funds pay salaries for SWCD technical staff, the folks who leverage millions of dollars in federal conservation funding for farmers and landowners, serving as a conduit for funneling those dollars to conservation-minded landowners.

“Front-line SWCD staff are one of our best tools in the conservation toolbox. The state took a hammer away and gave us a zip tie,” Woods says.

The reduction comes as the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy deadline looms next year. Set in 2015, the NLRS goal is a 45% reduction in both nitrogen and total phosphorus loads, with interim targets set at a 15% nitrogen decrease and a 25% total phosphorus decrease by 2025. Results in 2023 showed nutrient loss numbers trending in the wrong direction, with nitrogen loads up 4.8% and phosphorus loads up 35%.

Woods calls their 2025 operations budget “pre-2000 funding levels.”

Their total budget allocation for 2025 is $7.5 million, and breaks down like this:

  • $4.5 million for SWCD operations (salaries for local technical assistance employees)

  • $3 million for cost-share initiatives implemented by SWCDs

For comparison, in 2024, the SWCD portion totaled $11.5 million, and all other allocations remained the same.

“Nobody else in the IDOA appropriations took a cut in that amount,” Woods explains. “That’s what people don’t understand. The most significant cut was to SWCD operational funds.”

The Illinois Department of Agriculture says this budget is consistent with every budget introduced by the Pritzker administration, with $7.5 million for conservation, including $4.5 million for operations and $3 million for cost share. A spokesperson there says increased funding in 2022-24 was the result of “General Assembly member initiatives.”

But regardless of who did what, Woods says the result is the same for folks working in soil and water conservation districts: SWCDs will have half the funding for staff and operations in 2025 that they had in 2024.

Conservation’s rocky road in Illinois

It’s a tough break for a corner of agriculture that’s only just begun recovering from its last tough break, when the Rauner administration in 2016 slashed all conservation funding. As a result, SWCDs laid off staff and virtually eliminated conservation projects. The IDOA spokesperson points out that a bipartisan movement led to restored funding in 2018, thanks to efforts by then-Sen. Andy Manar, then-Rep. Jerry Costello II and Rep. Charlie Meier.

Since then, SWCDs have worked to hire staff and build back their ability to help farmers and landowners adopt conservation efforts. But Woods says this effort will drastically impact their front-line boots on the ground, as they look for ways to sustain staff with half the budget.

“My biggest concern is that these cuts will diminish our staff — that’s hard on morale,” he adds.

It also comes at a time when the federal government is seemingly throwing money at conservation through the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, with $19.5 billion over five years to support conservation programs.

The catch? Woods says you need state infrastructure to take advantage of it.

IDOA says it’s working on this. A department spokesperson says they’ve leveraged $3.5 million in state dollars to capture $9.4 million over three years from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, all to hire 40 front-line conservation planners for Illinois. IDOA stresses that the Pritzker administration is committed to conservation, but you have to look at the totality of the state budget.

Woods estimates that the cost to Illinois conservation could reach $50 million in uncaptured federal funds, all due to cutting SWCD staff.

A graphic table showing Illinois SWCD funding levels

What’s happening in neighbor states

Illinois typically lags its neighbors in conservation efforts. For example, Wisconsin has more than 10% of its farmland in cover crops, and Illinois has about 3%. Still, it’s hard to compare funding levels because every state does it differently.

Indiana doubled its direct support to soil and water conservation districts in 2023; however, it’s still under $2 million. The Indiana State Department of Agriculture houses the Division of Soil Conservation, which has about 30 technicians who work throughout SWCDs. They also created a new program in 2023 that will put another dozen technicians out in counties, in a joint effort with NRCS.

Iowa conservation funding has held steady but received a $15 million boost in 2024 and 2025, to improve water quality initiatives and infrastructure. That’s in addition to the $10.5 million the state already funds for water quality and nutrient strategy initiatives.

What’s next for SWCDs

Woods is optimistic and says they’ll have to be creative in funding their staff. He wants to develop a plan for alternative funding mechanisms to ensure long-term funding of SWCDs.

“The constant yo-yoing erodes perception and psyche, and it doesn’t allow for long-term planning,” Woods explains. “We’re a long-term industry, and short-term investments have long-term implications.”

It can take years for a staff person to work with a producer to secure federal funds, he adds. With no long-term commitment from the state, it’s hard for staff to maintain continuity with producers.

Woods would like to see money from the general revenue fund redirected to SWCDs, such as taxes collected on drainage tile. He points to the Nutrient Research and Education Council as a model for this. NREC was founded in 2012 as a response to the General Assembly, which consistently swept funds for nutrient research into the state’s general revenue fund and diverted them for other state programs. NREC works to ensure funds are available for research; $1 per ton of fertilizer sold is collected by retailers, and 75 cents goes directly to NREC for nutrient research and education.

The state is still a partner, Woods says, but it’s important for farmers to understand this budget is unusual.

“This is truly a reduction in the intergenerational investments in conservation in the state of Illinois,” he says. “And it’s notable.”

Read more about:

Nutrient Management

About the Author(s)

Holly Spangler

Prairie Farmer Senior Editor, Farm Progress

Holly Spangler has covered Illinois agriculture for more than two decades, bringing meaningful production agriculture experience to the magazine’s coverage. She currently serves as editor of Prairie Farmer magazine and Executive Editor for Farm Progress, managing editorial staff at six magazines throughout the eastern Corn Belt. She began her career with Prairie Farmer just before graduating from the University of Illinois in agricultural communications.

An award-winning writer and photographer, Holly is past president of the American Agricultural Editors Association. In 2015, she became only the 10th U.S. agricultural journalist to earn the Writer of Merit designation and is a five-time winner of the top writing award for editorial opinion in U.S. agriculture. She was named an AAEA Master Writer in 2005. In 2011, Holly was one of 10 recipients worldwide to receive the IFAJ-Alltech Young Leaders in Ag Journalism award. She currently serves on the Illinois Fairgrounds Foundation, the U of I Agricultural Communications Advisory committee, and is an advisory board member for the U of I College of ACES Research Station at Monmouth. Her work in agricultural media has been recognized by the Illinois Soybean Association, Illinois Corn, Illinois Council on Agricultural Education and MidAmerica Croplife Association.

Holly and her husband, John, farm in western Illinois where they raise corn, soybeans and beef cattle on 2,500 acres. Their operation includes 125 head of commercial cows in a cow/calf operation. The family farm includes John’s parents and their three children.

Holly frequently speaks to a variety of groups and organizations, sharing the heart, soul and science of agriculture. She and her husband are active in state and local farm organizations. They serve with their local 4-H and FFA programs, their school district, and are active in their church's youth and music ministries.

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