Sustainability Incentives

By Kathy Meyer

“We need to be realistic in helping farmers become more sustainable and profitable,” says Maria Bowman, lead scientist with the Soil Health Partnership (SHP). “A year like 2019 emphasizes the need to help farmers manage risk and make their farms more resilient through sustainable practices that include soil health management systems.”If ever there was a year when Illinois soybean farmers could benefit from economic incentives to use sustainable practices, this could be the one. Many forces - extreme weather, commodity prices, tariffs, consumer demands – are pressuring farmers to consider opportunities to become even more sustainable, not only environmentally, but also economically.

The turmoil of 2019 begs the question: what can Illinois soybean farmers do to make their farmed acres more profitable and less vulnerable to forces beyond their control?

“We need to be realistic in helping farmers become more sustainable and profitable,” says Maria Bowman, lead scientist with the Soil Health Partnership (SHP). “A year like 2019 emphasizes the need to help farmers manage risk and make their farms more resilient through sustainable practices that include soil health management systems.”

Soil Health Programs

SHP is headed into its sixth year as a farmer-led initiative fostering transformation and sustainability in agriculture through improved soil health. It’s grown from 17 active farms in 2014 to more than 225 active farms in 2019. SHP represents around 6,000 acres across 16 states (including Illinois) and partners with more than 100 organizations at all levels. 

“SHP is determining how farmers can adopt soil health practices more feasibly,” says Bowman. “It can be challenging to add soil health management practices to your operation. It’s not as simple as choosing a cover crop, and it’s all going to be golden.”

Bowman says SHP field managers work with farmers as they consider varieties and hybrids for cash and cover crops, nutrient management and tillage in their soil health management systems.

“Farmers may not see an economic benefit immediately but achieving soil and environmental benefits in a way that doesn’t hurt economically is still a win,” she adds.

Farmers adopting more advanced soil health measures involving strip trials receive a $5,000 payment per year from SHP over a five-year period. Beyond collecting data and research, SHP offers free on-farm technical assistance from field managers, webinars, a blog and the opportunity to network with other farmers working to improve soil health.

The Illinois Sustainable Ag Partnership (ISAP) is another group providing resources for farmers to gain value from conservation practices. The partnership has an array of educational materials and technical assistance, including its S.T.A.R. Program through the Champaign County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD). S.T.A.R. helps farmers adopt new practices and begin the journey to improved soil health with a long-term plan for sustainability and profitability.

Soil Carbon Payments

“If you do some things right, you aren’t as impacted by floods, droughts or other weather extremes. As a farmer, I know I’m losing soil and nutrients. Soil is a farmer’s main asset, plus I want to improve the environment.”Farmer Kent Bohnhoff grows soybeans, corn, wheat and cover crops in Effingham County, Illinois. He’s also recently retired from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and is a life-long advocate for sustainable agriculture and conservation practices.

“I want to better understand soil health and use sustainable farming practices to take some of the risk and variability out of farming,” says Bohnhoff. “If you do some things right, you aren’t as impacted by floods, droughts or other weather extremes. As a farmer, I know I’m losing soil and nutrients. Soil is a farmer’s main asset, plus I want to improve the environment.”

Already practicing sustainable methods such as strip till, the 4Rs of nutrient management and using the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) to plant field borders with native grasses for wildlife habitat, Bohnhoff recently enrolled in Indigo Carbon.

“I heard Indigo was offering payments for increasing soil carbon. I use many of the practices their program requires. It’s an opportunity to earn money for the good I already do,” he says.

USDA/NRCS Technical and Financial Assistance“We launched Indigo Carbon and The Terraton Experiment in June 2019 with the goal of removing one trillion metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and using it to enrich agricultural soils,” says Rachel Raymond, Indigo Ag Chief Operating Officer. “Our plan aims to pay farmers $15-$20 per ton of carbon they sequester through using regenerative tools like cover crops, no-till, diverse crop rotation and integrating livestock.”

Depending upon soil type and regional climates, participating farmers may receive payments of $30-$60 per acre for increasing soil carbon. “We want to partner with growers to help their transition to adopt regenerative practices. Many Illinois farmers are using these sustainable practices, and Indigo wants to provide the tools to realize the synergy of adopting a suite of regenerative practices rather than a single practice,” explains Raymond.

Illinois growers have signed up more than 100,000 acres for Indigo Carbon and that number is increasing every day. “Today growers are thinking outside the box of managing weeds, insects and diseases, but also managing weather volatility and soil health. Change is challenging, so a financial incentive to try something new and partner with Indigo agronomists should help sequester carbon, increase farm profitability and reduce the carbon footprint in agriculture.”

Illinois Crop Insurance Reward Program

There’s a new program in Illinois for farmers with crop insurance using cover crops, which allows them to seed 2019 fall cover crops and receive a $5 per acre reward, says Kris Reynolds, Midwest deputy director, American Farmland Trust.

“It’s available for 50,000 acres in Illinois. We’ve worked with many partners to get this funding in the Illinois Department of Agriculture (IDOA) budget,” he says. “It’s a great way for farmers to get a small reward for increasing cover crops on their land to make farms more sustainable by improving soil health and water quality while mitigating economic risk.”

Only acres not receiving cost-share funding from state and federal programs are eligible. Reynolds says farmers apply using their Farm Service Agency (FSA) 578 forms to certify cover crop acres. Offered by each individual’s crop insurance provider, the program is funded through IDOA. Details are available through SWCD local offices, which will submit applications to IDOA. Farmers also can access multiple resources available through American Farmland Trust.