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Helping Midwestern Farmers Safeguard the Economy and Environment

July 5, 2019
A new crop insurance program in Illinois creates new incentive for farmers to adopt practices that protect soil health

Albert Einstein famously wrote, “If the answer is simple, God is speaking.” It’s hard to say if it’s God’s voice that was channeled by leaders in Illinois as they announced a new incentive for farmers to plant more cover crops — a practice that is both good for business and good for water quality. But no matter the source, this news is simply divine.

A cover crop is a plant grown primarily for the benefit of the soil rather than the crop yield. Cover crops are commonly used to suppress weeds, manage soil erosion and prevent fertilizer runoff into waterways. In short, cover crops are such an elegantly simple solution to so many problems that even in a polarized era, leaders from both parties, farmers, industry groups, environmentalists and local residents all agree on their effectiveness.

The state’s new Fall Covers for Spring Savings: Crop Insurance Reward Program, recently signed into law by Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, received bipartisan support. The budget measure will not only benefit the state’s farm economy; it will protect the environment and improve the health of the Mississippi River. It’s heartening to see that we can still come together to tackle big challenges affecting rural and urban communities across the state.

Cover crops are commonly used to suppress weeds, manage soil erosion and prevent fertilizer runoff into waterways.

Illinois’ farmers have faced a shortened planting season in 2019, resulting from historic flooding and weather volatility. Farmers have now largely given up on planting corn; only 88% of the state’s corn has been planted this year.

The Fall Covers program plays a role in mitigating the effects of flooded fields for farmers. The program recognizes that cover crops improve the resiliency of farms and offers farmers a reward on the price they pay for crop insurance, which is important for the strength of Illinois’ farm economy. According to the Illinois Department of Agriculture, farmland covers nearly 27 million acres of the state, which is about 75% of the total land area. And the state’s agricultural products — corn, soybeans and other crops — generate more than $19 billion annually.

By protecting the environment upstream and embracing best conservation practices, Illinois’ farmers can take pride in a cleaner and healthier Mississippi River.
Amy Saltzman and Kris Reynolds

This new program will also benefit the environment. Cover crops grow at a time when soil would otherwise be bare, and living roots in the ground take up nitrogen so it isn't lost into our lakes, rivers and streams. This means cleaner drinking water for residents statewide.

By protecting the environment upstream and embracing best conservation practices, Illinois’ farmers can take pride in a cleaner and healthier Mississippi River. Illinois farms currently contribute one-fifth of the nitrate runoff that makes its way into the Gulf of Mexico. This runoff forms what’s known as a “dead zone” in the Gulf — an area so devoid of oxygen that it can no longer support life. The Fall Covers program is the first new funding that Illinois has made available to help meet its nutrient loss reduction goals and it will go a long way to improving the health of the nation’s most important waterways.

In its first year, this innovative program will blanket 50,000 acres with cover crops — a small step forward but only a fraction of the state’s available farmland. It will take hundreds of thousands of additional acres to truly put a dent in the problem. We have a lot more ground to cover.

It is imperative that Illinois lawmakers and leaders commit to additional incentives for cover crops, significantly expanding this program and providing cover for the state’s farmers, economy and waterways.

A version of this article appeared June 24, 2019 in the State Journal-Register in Springfield, Ill.

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