CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Illinois STAR (Saving Tomorrow’s Agriculture Resources) is excited to announce open enrollment for farmers for the 2023 crop year. As summer settles in and crops are growing throughout the Midwest, it’s time for farmers and landowners to reap the results of investing in conservation practices on their fields. By participating in STAR, farmers receive a clear conservation roadmap, gain public recognition for their environmental stewardship, create a market signal for supply chain partners, and can connect to opportunities for technical and financial support.
Participation is simple and free. Farmers and landowners can use a Web Application or a fillable “Field Form” available at the STAR Website: www.starfreetool.com or can contact a local Soil & Water Conservation District for help since most of them in Illinois are licensed to provide STAR. Submissions should be made before harvest but can be completed as late as January 31st, 2024. STAR is an innovative tool developed by farmers, for farmers in 2017 by leaders in the Champaign County Soil and Water Conservation District (CCSWCD). Since then, STAR has spread across Illinois and to Indiana, Iowa, Colorado, Washington, and Missouri. In 2022, 476 participants on 1,293 fields and 86,871 acres in Illinois embraced the power of STAR. These farmers have been able to track progress along their conservation journey by answering field specific questions about their rotation, tillage, nutrient applications, and conservation practices. Answers to the questions, protected by data security agreements, are used to determine a field’s STAR Rating of one (1) to five (5) STARS, and farmers are provided with a free field sign to showcase their score. This rating helps farmers to communicate their land stewardship and to position their farms for potential market incentive opportunities. Farmers are also provided with a Conservation Improvement plan to guide future conservation practice decisions along with resources for technical and financial support.
The scoring system behind the ratings was created by a Science Advisory Committee of industry experts, university researchers, and farmers. Conservation practices that are awarded STAR points include both “in field” and “edge of field” practices that have been proven to help decrease nutrient and soil losses, improve water quality and soil health, and increase farm resilience. Current “in field” practices that are encouraged include nutrient application timing, tillage method, and usage of cover crops. Current “edge of field” practices include the use of filter strips, waterways, and pollinator plantings. Decisions about which practices to encourage, or discourage, the points assigned, and the scoring system that determines the STAR Rating are regularly re-evaluated and updated by the STAR Science Advisory Committee.
“We created STAR to show farmers how easy it can be to prevent nutrient and soil losses, protect our water supplies, and improve soil health. Every year, we see more participants ready to join our efforts by using the free STAR tool,” said Steve Stierwalt, President of the CCSWCD. “By providing a clear conservation roadmap, supporting resources, and public recognition, STAR will continue to show more farmers and landowners that the time and effort spent implementing conservation practices produces great returns on their investment and necessary protections for the health of our soil and water.”
When Stierwalt co-founded STAR with Joe Rothermel, the motivation was to help meet the agricultural goals in the state’s Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy plan. That plan, developed by the state’s Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency, lays out a comprehensive suite of best management practices for reducing nutrient loads from wastewater treatment plants, urban, and agricultural runoff. While many farmers agree that these conservation practices can benefit both their farms and society, it can be difficult to initiate, maintain, and integrate conservation into their production systems. The STAR team is working hard to build partnerships across the supply chain that will provide technical and financial assistance to participating farmers. Pilot programs were successfully completed with multiple partners in 2021 and 2022, and more incentive programs are being planned for 2023.
For more information, go to the website or email the Illinois STAR Coordinator at email@example.com.
— Illinois STAR