Green field with reduced carbon dioxide in the air

How Illinois farmers help the environment and restore our Earth

To celebrate Earth Day, we’d like to share more about some of our farm practices that build healthy soil and restore our Earth’s land – and what they mean to you.

As Illinois farmers, we depend on healthy, productive soil to make a living and feed all our families. It’s not a stretch to say that soil is our most valuable asset. You also may not realize it, but you depend on healthy soil to live, too. Scientists estimate 95% of all our food has a connection to soil, either directly or indirectly.

Farmers today manage roughly 75% of the land in Illinois, and we’re working hard to protect it all because we’re blessed with some of the best soil in the world.

There’s another reason we’re serious about farming practices that help the environment and protect the health of Illinois soils: future generations. We want to maintain our superior soils for our children and our children’s children.

Winter wheat on Illinois farm

(Photo credit: Illinois Farm Bureau)

Cover crops keep soil in place

Cover crops are crops such as rye, radishes and clover that are planted in the fall, and left in the ground until planting the following spring. They aren’t harvested for food. Rather, they act as a protective blanket for soil during the winter to protect it from wind and water erosion.

At the same time, cover crops are also feeding beneficial microorganisms in the soil and keeping nutrients in the ground for the next crop.

Other advantages of adding cover crops to fields include using less fertilizer and less fuel. In other words, cover crops can improve environmental and economic sustainability on our farms. We’re proud that Illinois is a leader in cover crop adoption.

What this means to you: Cleaner water, lower carbon footprint to produce your food.

Illinois Cover Crop

Less tilling saves soil from wind and water erosion

Conservation tillage – also called reduced till and minimum till – means we’re turning over the soil less each year as we grow a crop. If you’re driving in rural parts of Illinois, you might see fewer fields with black soil sitting on the top during spring and fall.

By eliminating tillage passes through a field, we help the soil stay put, while reducing our fuel use and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. That’s better for the soil and better for the environment.

Most corn and soybeans in the U.S. are grown using conservation tillage. In Illinois, we’re no different, especially those of us farming in hilly areas where wind and water erosion is more challenging.

Conservation tillage is also helping Illinois farmers protect our soil by mitigating the impact of high-rainfall events, which are becoming more common. In Illinois, since 1980, the number of days it rains more than 2” in a single day has doubled. The last thing a farmer wants to see is beautiful black soil washing away in the rain.

What this means to you: Cleaner water, reduced GHG emissions from farm equipment.

Conservation tillage on Illinois farms

More organic matter keeps more carbon in the soil

Today, many farmers are going full no-till. That means we’re leaving the entire plant residue that’s left over from harvesting the previous year’s crop on top of the soil and planting straight into it in the spring.

This improves overall soil health by adding more organic matter to the soil and keeping the carbon sequestered in the soil instead of in our atmosphere. Organic matter is any plant residue decomposing in the soil. It indicates good soil health and is essential for providing nutrients to grow plants, reduce compaction and retain moisture.

What this means to you: Reduced carbon dioxide levels in the air, fewer commercial fertilizer applications.

How Illinois farmers reduce carbon dioxide in the air

Conservation buffers slow soil and water runoff

Last but not least, we’re planting conservation buffers. These include buffer strips, which are strips of land along the edges of farm fields designed to slow soil and water runoff. 

We also plant filter strips – grass patches along streams and riverbanks that help prevent soil from eroding and washing away. Conservation buffers serve a lot of purposes, almost all related to environmental sustainability.

All told, Illinois Farm Families have dedicated 800,000+ acres to soil and water conservation efforts. So, there’s 800,000+ reasons that farmers have often been called “the original environmentalists.”

What this means to you: Cleaner water, increased food, nesting and habitat protection for wildlife.

Every day is Earth Day on the farm as Illinois farmers work to help the environment and restore our Earth. Keep learning about the sustainability of farms and food.