By WEN HUANG
Reducing soil erosion:
Think about farming in Illinois and some pictures jump to mind. Fields of corn stretching skyward as far as the eye can see. Huge combines rumbling over the fields, harvesting soybeans. The sun setting over golden fields of wheat.
That is the pretty picture of Illinois farming. But the Illinois Environmental Council paints a far more unsettling picture. In their 1990 Green Papers the council reports that approximately 200 million tons of soil, an average of about 6.3 tons of soil per acre, are being eroded each year on 33 million acres in Illinois. At current erosion rates, 1.5 bushels of topsoil are lost for every bushel of corn produced in the state.
The bleak picture of soil erosion caught state legislators' eyes. In 1982, the General Assembly passed the Illinois Erosion and Sedimentation Control Law, which required the Illinois Department of Agriculture and 98 soil and water conservation districts to reduce soil loss by the year 2000 to T, which is the "tolerable" level of no more than five tons per acre each year. That level is the amount of soil loss that can occur and theoretically be replaced each year by natural soil-building processes. Illinois has 32,076,000 acres of rural land, and in 1983 more than 11.2 million acres, or 35 percent, exceeded tolerable soil loss levels.
Under the Illinois program, known as "T by 2000," the specific targets to be achieved between 1983 and 2000 are these:
• By January 1, 1983, soil loss at or below 4 T (4 to 20 tons per acre per year), for a total annual loss of 134.1 million tons.
• By January 1, 1988, land with 5 percent slope or less at T or less (1 to 5 tons per acre per year) and all other land at 2 T or less (2 to 10 tons per acre per year), for a total annual loss of 94 million tons.
• By January 1, 1994, 1.5 T or less (1.5 to 7.5 tons per acre per year), for a total annual soil loss of 71.2 million tons.
• By January 1, 2000, T or less (1 to 5 tons per acre per year), for a total annual loss of 66.2 million tons.
Since the inception of T by 2000 in 1982, several federal and state soil conservation programs have been initiated to help accomplish the goal. The Conservation Compliance and Conservation Reserve programs contained in the 1985 U.S. farm bill constitute some of the most significant federal soil conservation legislation, says Terry Donohue, chief of the state agriculture department's soil conservation bureau. The compliance program requires that farmers who want to receive federal farm program benefits develop a conservation plan for their highly erodible land by 1990 and fully implement it by 1995. The Conservation Reserve Program, continued in the 1990 farm bill, is intended to take highly erodible land out of production for a period of 10 years. Participants receive 10 annual rental payments to put the land in reserve and a one-time 50 percent cost-share payment for planting either a vegetative cover or trees.
The conservation compliance requirement could affect some four to six million acres of cropland in Illinois. The cost shares paid to Illinois farmers in fiscal year 1989 were more than $13.6 million, according to the 1990 Annual Progress Report compiled by the Illinois agriculture department's Division of Natural Resources. At the same time, approximately $44.6 million in rental payments were issued, according to the report. As a result, more than 12.7 million tons of soil per year are being saved.
In 1986 Illinois state government started its own soil conservation cost-share programs to help farmers build conservation structures like grass waterways and terraces. Appropriations for the two programs totaled $18.8 million from fiscal year 1986 to fiscal-year 1991. The programs are the Conservation Practice Program (CPP) and the Water Land Treatment Program (WLTP). The CPP allocates funds to each of the soil and water conservation districts, from which landowners with land exceeding T levels can receive cost-share assistance. The WLTP targets funds, also via the districts, to landowners with serious erosion and sedimentation problems concentrated within a defined watershed.
By October 1, 1990, about 89 percent of the $16,772,500 available for cost-sharing through fiscal year 1990 had been expended, and about 5,621 projects had been completed, benefitting 245,433 acres of land and saving 2.4 million tons of soil annually.
Apart from these programs, the use of conservation tillage and no-till systems has increased on Illinois farms. Both are low-cost management techniques to reduce sheet and till erosion. Sheet erosion occurs over a large piece of land, and the effects are not visible; till erosion features visible gullies. Using conservation tillage means leaving 30 percent or more of crop residue on the field surface, which provides a protective cover for the soil and reduces the potential for soil loss by 60 to 65 percent. No-till means what the words imply: The soil and residue cover is left completely undisturbed, reducing soil erosion by as much as 95 percent.
Illinois leads the nation in both practices, according to the "1990 National Survey of Conservation Tillage Practices" released by the Conservation Technology Information Center in Indiana. In 1990, 8.4 million acres or 37 percent of cropland
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acres in Illinois were employing the conservation tillage system, and approximately 2.6 million cropland acres were planted no-till.
Despite these efforts, Illinois is not meeting its T by 2000 goals. In 1987 the U.S. Department of Agriculture conducted the National Resource Inventory. According to the data released in 1990, the land exceeding T in Illinois dropped nearly 22 percent, from 10.7 million acres in 1982 to 8.4 million in 1988. The total tons of soil loss has been reduced by 25 percent, bringing the current annual soil loss to 146.5 million tons, about 52 million tons per year higher than the 94 million projected goal for 1988.
Donohue attributes failure to meet the 1988 target to the increased farming of marginal cropland which is more susceptible to erosion. "It's kind of a moving target, and it changes all the time, depending on the number of acres that we have in production," he says.
T by 2000 is attainable, says Donohue, but inadequate funding poses a major obstacle. In 1983, data provided by each soil and water conservation district indicated it would cost $1 billion to implement the various conservation practices necessary for meeting T by 2000. "We started at $4 million on the state cost-share program and went up to $5 million in 1988, and since then the dollar amount has been reduced each year.'' says Donohue. In fiscal 1990, $2 million was appropriated from the General Revenue Fund to continue the conservation programs, and in fiscal 1991 the amount dropped to $1.8 million. For fiscal 1992, the Illinois agricultre department's preliminary request for cost-share programs is $4 million. "We're still at the early stage of bugeting, and we won't know until the end of the whole budget process," says Donohue.
Illinois farmers are in a very difficult financial position. According to Donohue, the markets for soybeans and corn have gone down in recent years while everything else has gone up. Farmers have almost no leeway for shifting costs while the market price for their crops drops.
The state cost-share program involves farmers and state government splitting the construction costs. (In Sangamon County those shares are 65 percent state and 35 percent farmer.) According to Dan Towery, Sangamon County's soil and water district conservationist, some landowners don't have the 35 percent share to put in what they need: "When you talk about mechanical practices like grass waterways, terraces and dams, they are very expensive. They can cost anywhere from $3,000 to $4,000, to $15,000 to $20,000, depending on the type of soil and the size of the farms. Farmers are not in the position to have that kind of cash for those expensive practices. They do rely on assistance from the state. If the dollars are going to be reduced, as they have been, or if we see budget tightening, that's going to hamper our ability to attain the goal."
In financial resources allocated to the conservation programs, Donohue says Illinois lags behind other midwest states. Iowa has a similar program called "Iowa 2000," and the state government appropriates $6 million to $8 million a year for its cost-share program. Missouri set aside one-tenth of 1 percent of its sales tax for conservation, half for state parks and half for soil conservation.
Even if there were enough funds, how realistic is the Illinois goal of T by 2000? Rudy Rice, president of the Association of Illinois Soil and Water Conservation Districts, said he is too scared to answer the question. "Sometimes I think it's very realistic and sometimes I wonder."
As a farmer with 900 acres of land, Rice has been practicing conservation tillage for almost seven years and is working more and more towards no-till. Any change, Rice says, is going to be slow, especially in the farm industry. To most farmers, changing their tillage practices means changing the way they make a living. As Rice explains: "I know myself as a livestock farmer, they have to do something with the manure, and if you're going to do something, you have to do some sort of tillage to incorporate it into the soil. That's going to be a fact of life. We don't and can't expect the change overnight. You need patience." Moreover, Rice said it takes at least three or four years before the farmer can actually see the benefit of conservation tillage and get the land texture back. "I have been doing that for six or seven years, and the land seems to get better year by year," he added.
Another impediment to conservation tillage practices is the decreasing number of farms and a corresponding increase in the size of each farm's operation. With more land to till, Rice says it is going to be difficult to convince farmers to delay their tillage from fall to spring: "They think they've got to get ahead of time."
To Towery, the T by 2000 goal is just that — a goal the state should try hard to attain. "We need to go a long way towards achieving it," he says. "To be honest, I don't really expect to be looking at 100 percent. It's only nine years."
Looking at their bottom line as business men and women, Towery says some farmers will resist conservation practices to keep their costs low: "On the one hand, you say the steep marginal ground should come out of production, but most guys want to farm that ground to lower the overall cost of production."
Whether achieved or not, the T by 2000 goal has served as an educational tool, bringing awareness to Illinois farmers of the benefits of conservation practices, according to Towery and his colleagues at the Sangamon County Soil and Water Conservation District. "Education is very important. . . .not just from magazines or books. Farmer talking with farmer is the most effective means of education. Changing tillage takes a long time, and we need a conservation team. Landowners, absentee farmers and bank managers play an important role in this conservation team," Towery says.
To accelerate acceptance of the the mechanical conservation practices, the Sangamon County district has organized a local self-help group called "Sangamon Tillage Busters." Members meet during the winter, and speakers come to exchange ideas on how to make no-till work. Similar efforts have been launched elsewhere by the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Service.
Whether or not the soil loss goals in T by 2000 are met, Illinois is making progress, according to Towery: "The trend is increasing. With the good cooperation among the various agencies who have participated in the program, we are going to make a change."
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