CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — More and more farmers and landowners are using the free S.T.A.R. tool to improve their operations and better protect their land and our environment for the long term.
The S.T.A.R. initiative (short for Saving Tomorrow’s Agriculture Resources) is an innovative conservation program in Illinois and several other states that helps farmers and landowners track how well they are caring for our soil and water while producing their crops, via the free, handy S.T.A.R. field evaluation tool.
S.T.A.R. was created by the Champaign County Soil and Water Conservation District (CCSWCD) in 2017 to 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. Similar strategies have been developed by 11 other states in the Mississippi River Basin since 2015.
S.T.A.R.’s highlights for 2019:
- 214 participants used S.T.A.R. on 1,175 fields, for a total of 83,592 acres in Illinois
- >90% of 5-Star fields were planted under no-till or strip till management and planted a winter hardy cover crop
- Farmers and landowners in 70 Illinois counties and 4 other states are now using S.T.A.R.
Eric Rademacher, who farms in Gifford, Ill., has used the S.T.A.R. tool since 2017. “S.T.A.R.’s a way to confirm some of the practices we are implementing and also see the other options out there. It’s great to have a standardized ranking of where you line up,” Rademacher noted.
S.T.A.R. participants complete a field form that is scored by a local reviewer, usually the local SWCD office, which then assigns points for everything from the cover crops used on acreage, to the kinds of fertilizer used for nutrient management at different points before and during the growing season, to various possible conservation practices used on that field to prevent runoff into nearby water sources.
S.T.A.R. uses a science committee of university researchers and other experts to ensure the field forms accurately represent nutrient loss reduction and how those effect the natural resources of the state. Fields are then ranked on the 5-star scale, and participants can receive a sign for their fields to identify their S.T.A.R. designation.
The program touts several key benefits for more participation: decreasing nutrient loss from the soil, improving water quality, helping farmers show their stewardship, increasing farm resilience, and positioning farms for future market opportunities.
“Our experience with S.T.A.R. farmers is they never realized how easy it can be to prevent runoff and protect our water supplies, and how important it is to take the extra time to plan for and execute a sustainable farming strategy on their acreage,” said Bruce Henrikson, S.T.A.R. Program Coordinator through CCSWCD.
“We hope to show more farmers that conservation practices are not a luxury for farms with economic means, but a natural, necessary investment in the health of our soil, our water and our state,” Henrikson said.
S.T.A.R. is now encouraging interested farmers to prepare to enroll their acreage in the 2020 program as planting time arrives. Participating is free, and as simple as completing a field form at the S.T.A.R. website: https://starfreetool.com/home. Paper field forms are also available for download from the site. 2020 field forms will be available starting July 1 through next February.
— The Nature Conservancy
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