Get the dirt on soil health

The key to sustainable agriculture is right below your feet.

To be a farmer is to be an expert on many things, and soil is at the top of that list. Soil health can literally make or break any farm. But what many people don’t know is that soil is also a key tool in managing erosion, water quality, downstream runoff and even greenhouse gas emissions.

Illinois has long been recognized as “corn country,” a reputation built on being blessed with good soil and the careful stewardship of that soil by Illinois farmers. Kellogg has purchased corn from Illinois farmers for decades and recently formed a collaboration with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) to help Illinois farmers utilize new technologies and best practices to continue managing and promoting soil health in the face of climate change.

The S.T.A.R. program is aptly named because it is about Saving Tomorrow’s Agriculture Resources. This program was created by the Champaign County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) in 2017 to contribute to the goals outlined in Illinois’ Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy—a framework for reducing the amount of excess nutrients, like phosphorus and nitrogen, flowing from farm fields into Illinois waters and the Gulf of Mexico.

TNC is working with the Champaign County SWCD, the Association of Illinois SWCDs and the Illinois Sustainable Ag Partnership to extend the S.T.A.R. program to more farmers and more Illinois counties.  Kellogg has awarded funding to help S.T.A.R. expand as part of our goal to support 1 million farmers and workers through resiliency programs that also improve farmers’ livelihoods and promote climate-smart agriculture.

In Illinois, that includes grants to the S.T.A.R. team, staffed with trusted advisors and conservation professionals who help farmers assess how well their practices reduce soil and nutrient loss from their fields. Their assessments, which include a 1 to 5 Star rating for each farm field, help farmers identify better practices to improve soil and water management. In 2018, more than 27,000 acres were given a S.T.A.R. rating, and this reach is expected to expand as more farmers use the tool.

From a sustainability standpoint, this program can help farmers grow more sustainably on several fronts:

Stopping erosion: The use of cover crops and soil management techniques makes soil more resistant to both wind and water erosion.

Improving local water quality: Stopping erosion and carefully managing nutrients means that there is less soil and nutrients getting into local water waterways.

Mitigating effects of downstream run off: Improving local water quality also helps make downstream waters cleaner all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico.

Reducing greenhouse gases: Soils can naturally trap carbon that may otherwise appear in greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. Keeping those soils in place and undisturbed helps store carbon in the earth instead of the atmosphere.

Beyond the environmental impacts, this program can help farmers see opportunities to improve yield and reduced costs through implementing soil health practices. Additionally, the S.T.A.R. program may help farmers unlock public conservation grants in the future.

Recently, the program honored several Illinois farmers and conservation professionals with the inaugural STAR awards. Jeff O’Connor, a soy bean and corn farmer in Irwin, Illinois was among the award recipients.  “What I love about farming is the opportunity that is given to us every to produce a product,” said O’Conner, “and to produce it in the most profitable and sustainable way possible and to protect the environment in the process of doing that.”

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