Soil is a vital part of the natural environment; it influences the distribution of crops and plant species, and it provides habitats for many animals. When forests are cleared for farming and timber, the chance of soil erosion increases. Erosion is when the topsoil that contains the most nutrients is destroyed or carried away by wind, water, or ice. Luckily here in Illinois, we started as a prairie; our soils were always covered by something, and the deeply rooted grasses that cover Illinois prevents soil erosion from occurring. Agriculture became very popular and necessary as populations rose; farming practices became more intense to accommodate the population needs, and tilling the land – preparing the soil for crops by disturbing the soil, often inducing erosion – became a popular practice. When Illinois farmers began to see the negative impacts of tillage on not only their land but also on the surrounding ecosystems, they found new, more sustainable ways to protect their soil and the environment.
Historically, the uses of no-till and reduced-till practices were widely unaccepted around the nation because farmers didn’t believe that these practices would make a difference in their soil. No-till is a way to grow crops without disturbing the soil – when soil is preserved, it remains healthier and better supports crop growth. The benefits of no-till include an increase in water infiltration into the soil and better nutrient retention. George Elvert McKibben, an Illinois native and agronomist at the University of Illinois, made no-till practices acceptable to farmers by experimenting with no-till systems in 1966. The main concern of farmers was to save their soil; to show farmers the advantages of no-till, McKibben and his team planted corn into grassy plots around Illinois. The results vastly changed the way farmers thought about soil management practices; the corn thrived and reduced soil erosion on the plots. Once John Deere manufactured a no-till planter, no-till and reduced-till practices became even more widely supported and implemented by farmers.
Long-term sustainability has always been a goal of agriculturists. Farmers know that the key to healthy ecosystems and agricultural lands start with healthy soils. A healthy soil is one that sustains a diverse ecosystem that supports animals, plants, and humans. Other practices are being implemented by farmers in addition to no-till and reduced till to protect soil and the environment. Collecting runoff from soil nutrients is an important way that farmers are limiting the amount of pollutants that enter nearby waterways. Planting cover crops in fields that don’t have anything planted in them is another way farmers are reducing nutrient pollution runoff into nearby waterways.
The Soil Health Partnership, a National Corn Growers Association Initiative, is a project created to make agriculture more sustainable by focusing on soil health. The Partnership measures the benefits of best soil management practices and relays results to farmers. Farmers in Illinois and around the Midwest can join the Partnership to learn more about how to protect soil and the environment. Farmers in the Partnership either have been practicing no-till or reduced-till management on their land or have recently switched over. Farmers are stewards of the environment; from continuous education about soil and the environment to the adoption of best soil management practices, farmers are doing everything they can to sustain the environment and their land.