Warren Goetsch, IDOA deputy director.
PROGRESS: “I’m very, very happy with the progress, and I’m most proud of the way stakeholder groups have worked together,” says Warren Goetsch, IDOA deputy director.

Nutrient survey: Farmers making progress

In a biennial report released at the Farm Progress Show, government leaders lauded agriculture for its voluntary efforts to reduce nutrient loss.

Illinois farmers are doing a good job at reducing nutrient loss. That’s the short-answer result of the state’s Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy Biennial Report, released by the Illinois Department of Agriculture and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency during the 2017 Farm Progress Show.

“This is a big report,” says IDOA Director Raymond Poe. “Farmers are doing a good job.”

The report describes actions taken in Illinois during the last two years to reduce nutrient losses and influence positive changes in nutrient loads over time. 

Illinois’ strategy is one of numerous other state strategies developed and implemented over the 31-state Mississippi River basin, intended to improve the nation’s water quality. Illinois’ strategy provides a framework for reducing both point and nonpoint nutrient losses to improve the state’s overall water quality, as well as the quality of water leaving the state and making its way down the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico. 

Results show Illinois farmers have increased the number of acres that receive split nitrogen applications, says Warren Goetsch, IDOA deputy director. The acres that receive half of their nitrogen in the spring increased by 24% over previous years. Those voluntary efforts are being lauded by IDOA and IEPA as positive steps by the agricultural community. Use of cover crops has also increased by 123% on tile drainage acres.

“Farmers adopt what’s good for their farm, but they also listen to their farm organizations, and they’re hearing this message from soil and water groups, Illinois Farm Bureau, retailers, and from natural resource groups,” Goetsch adds.

Results have been achieved despite no new money coming from Washington or Springfield to fund nutrient loss reduction projects. “Significant dollars” have been redirected from existing programs, as well as the private sector, to focus on nutrient loss reduction, Goetsch says.

Fast progress
Widely considered a national authority on nutrient loss reduction, the report is a follow-up to the nutrient loss reduction strategy released in 2015, Goetsch says. It includes information from a survey conducted by the National Ag Statistics Service, which was released last December and gauged producer awareness as well as changes in production practices. That study examined the metrics needed to map progress and will be repeated every other year.

IEPA Director Alec Messina tells Prairie Farmer, “One of the things we’re seeing is the amount of progress made in a short period of time.

“In just two years, we are already seeing the impacts of Illinois’ strategy on water quality.”

He points to the reduction in the amount of phosphorus discharge from wastewater treatment plants in Illinois. In 2013, only 20% of those facilities were under permit with a phosphorus limit. In 2016, 79% were operating under a phosphorus limit permit. This number will continue to grow as existing permits expire or come up for renewal. To demonstrate the commitment toward nutrient removal, wastewater treatment facilities report spending $144.96 million to fund feasibility studies, optimization studies and capital investment. 

“It’s a wonderful part of this report because farmers are learning from each other,” Messina says. “It’s the quickness that’s the surprise.”

Down the road
The next goal? Messina says it’s to identify high-priority watersheds — like the Rock River and Embarras River watersheds — and focus on water quality there.

“Ultimately, you look at water quality to judge whether you’ve been successful,” Goetsch says. But changes in the water quality entering the Gulf of Mexico are many years in the future, and Midwest agriculture needs to know whether it’s making progress today.

“The biennial report is an update of the original nutrient loss reduction strategy,” Goetsch explains. “Two years from now, we will do it again: We’ll update the science, monitoring and activity in each sector.

“There’s an ongoing need to keep this effort in front of producers so we can continue to make progress.”

There’s strategy even in the release of the biennial report: “By making the announcement at the Farm Progress Show, you’re introducing successes to a whole range of farmers who might be apprehensive about these new management practices,” he says.

The biennial report is a collaboration of IDOA, Illinois Department of Natural Resources and IEPA, plus several stakeholders from all different sectors: Illinois Farm Bureau, Growmark, IL Corn, Illinois Soybean Association, Illinois Pork Producers, the Sierra Club, and other environmental and water organizations.

Access the full report online.

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