The sun rises over a farm field.
Cover crops can help ensure healthy soil that captures carbon. © Ron Nichols/USDA-NRC

Stories in Illinois

Providing Food and Water Sustainably

Across Illinois, we're working to provide food and water for people in ways that protect nature.

The world's population is growing—fast. By 2050, it is expected to reach 9 billion. This is putting tremendous pressure on our lands and waters to provide the food we eat and the fresh water we drink, as global agricultural production must increase by 60 percent by 2050 to meet demands. At The Nature Conservancy, we know there is another way forward, one in which we can meet the demands of a growing population sustainably, so that natural resources are protected for both people and nature.

A machine harvests corn.
Corn Corn being harvested. © Jason Lindsey

The Challenges of Providing Food and Water Sustainably

Right here in Illinois, we can see firsthand how demand impacts our lands and waters. Located among fertlie soils and two of our greatest freshwater resources—the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes—Illinois is one of the country's leading agricultural producers. Farmland covers 27 million acres—about 75 percent of the state's total land area—and agricultural commodities generate more than $19 billion annually. This output ranks Illinois third nationally in the export of agricultural commodities.

But this incredible productivity comes at a cost. The use of the land to grow the food the world needs is impacting soil health and causing erosion into our streams, rivers and lakes. Illinois is also currently a leading contributor of both nitrogen and phosphorus (two nutrients used to fertilize crops) to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. An excess of these nutrients can impact drinking water supplies, wildlife habitat, and cause toxic algal blooms.

The Solution

Working at both the local and global levels, The Nature Conservancy in Illinois develops practical, outcome-based solutions to confront this challenge:

  • We are collaborating with the agricultural industry to expand the number of sustainable farming methods that are available and utilized on farmland across the state. Practices such as cover crops, buffer strips, and constructed wetlands can slow down the flow of water, absorb nutrients to improve water quality in streams and rivers, and prevent soil from leaving farm fields. They can also improve soil health, sequest carbon from the air and mitigate the impacts of climate change.
  • One such partnership is the Illinois Sustainable Ag Partnership (ISAP), which TNC formed along with American Farmland Trust, Illinois Corn Growers Association, The Wetlands Initiative, the Zea Mays Foundation and others. Through resources, training and education for farmers, advisors and conservation practitioners, the goals of this cooperative are to increase adoption of soil health systems and sustainable practices and link a network of on-farm demonstration sites to disseminate new information and lessons learned.
  • TNC and other ISAP members are also working with the Association of Illinois Soil and Water Conservation Districts and Champaign County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) to expand the S.T.A.R. initiative. S.T.A.R. stands for Saving Tomorrow’s Agricultural Resources, and it is a free tool to assist farm operators and landowners in evaluating their nutrient and soil loss management practices on individual fields. S.T.A.R. encourages farmers and landowners to make decisions that will reduce the nutrient and soil losses on their fields, and in return, they are provided recognition with a field sign noting their level of commitment to conservation. The program awards points for the adoption of practices that have been identified by local stakeholders as a priority for addressing local resource concerns, specifically losses of nitrogen and phosphorus. From improved nutrient management to crop rotation or inclusion of livestock, a suite of practices can result in between one and five stars. The simple ratings are regionally specific, linked to the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy goals of reducing nitrogen and phosphorus loss by 45 percent, and vetted by a local technical advisory committee made up of representatives from all the agriculture sectors—retail, commodity, agency and farmers.
A scientists searches for mussels at the water's edge.
Maria Lemke Director of Science for the Illinois chapter. © Laura Stoecker

What's Happening in Illinois Right Now?  

Maria Lemke, the director of science for the Illinois chapter, will have a series of papers published in scientific journals throughout the fall and upcoming spring related to wetland research conducted on farmlands in central Illinois. This research will play an important role in helping farmers and members of the agricultural community better understand how wetlands can help reduce the run off of nitrogen and phosphorous from farm fields into Illinois’ streams, creeks and rivers. While in the right amounts these nutrients are essential and beneficial to crops, excessive amounts in our freshwater resources can contribute to algal blooms that may be harmful both people and nature.   

The first of these papers, “Accelerating Implementation of Constructed Wetlands on Tile-drained Agricultural Lands in Illinois,” will be published in the Journal of Soil and Water Quality’s 75th Anniversary Edition. In the paper, Maria describes TNC’s work with partners and producers to implement constructed wetlands in the Mackinaw River watershed.  It highlights lessons learned and key considerations related to the fact that wetlands are very successful in reducing nutrient loss, but can be costly and logistically difficult to implement.  

“Farmers are eager to adopt sustainable practices like these, so we need increased financial incentives that can lessen the burden of implementation, as well as the cost of giving up a portion of their productive land,” Maria explains. “We’re seeing that public-private partnerships can help fill this void in the way they leverage both funding and technical assistance.”

Double rainbow at Franklin demonstration farm in the Mackinaw River watershed, Lexington, Illinois.
Double rainbow A double rainbow at Franklin demonstration farm in the Mackinaw River watershed, Lexington, Illinois. © Timothy T Lindenbaum/The Nature Conserva

Get more nature in your inbox!