Landowners Leading: Cover Crops Coming to IDNR Farmland

Buckwheat Field

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) owns and manages 35,000 acres of farmland, almost all in corn and bean production, across the state. As you can read here in an Outdoor Illinois Journal article, the IDNR is in the process of launching a program that is expected to bring cover cropping to 6,000-9,000 acres of its land in the coming year. 

This is important news just on its own merits! But the story also has lessons for anyone who owns farmland and rents it out to someone else to farm.

Cover cropping is a big deal. When much of a piece of land is bare of growing vegetation for long periods of time, bad things happen. Some of these bad things are: (1) erosion, (2) diminished or dead soil life, and (3) conditions that support only a very small fraction of the insect and bird life that the field could.  Cover cropping is a way to imitate in agriculture what we see in meadows and prairies – continuous living cover that protects and builds soil while also supporting other life. Buckwheat, as seen in the spectacular flowering field above, is one example of the valuable pollinator habitat cover crops can provide.

The reality for the IDNR and any other farmland owner is, however, that many farmers have not had experience with using cover crops. It also costs time and money and can require equipment a farmer doesn’t have. Finally, the benefits of using cover crops may not be fully realized for some time. If the farmer only has a short lease, he may not see any production and financial benefits from the use of cover crops at all.  For the farmer, it can feel very unfair if he/she has to expend more time, money, and energy for something that will not benefit his/her farming operation at all.

This is why the details of the IDNR approach (which are detailed in the Outdoor Illinois article) are worth paying attention to. 

One key detail is that the IDNR will be using some of its own funds and that of a 13-group partnership funded by the USDA's Regional Conservation Partnership Program to share the costs of cover crop implementation with the farmers. Also, while there a wide variety of ways of using cover crops, the IDNR intends to start this practice out in ways that will not initially disturb the farmers’ cropping systems. 

In other words, the IDNR is making conservation part of its farmland management but is doing so in ways that recognize the challenges of the transition for many farmers.  Its approach will give farmers the space to learn along the way and for other farmers around the state to see how that is done. Then, going forward, new lease contracts will require continued cover cropping which the farmer will begin to receive the benefits of as well.

“We value our partnerships with tenant farmers” said John Rogner, Assistant Director for IDNR.  “Farmers are conservationists, but also business owners.  If we can help them make soil and wildlife conservation work as a business proposition, it will be a model that can be replicated across the State of Illinois.”

We are delighted to see the IDNR innovatively living out its conservation principles in its farmland management. 

We’re especially hopeful that the pioneering approach of IDNR and other public farmland-owning institutions in the state (like the McHenry County Conservation District and Forest Preserve District of Will County) will be a catalyst for the day when Illinois doesn’t just join the regenerative agriculture movement but begins to lead it. 

Along those lines, there was one especially electrifying statement in the article: “IDNR wants to be the location where people go to see regenerative agriculture that is friendly to wildlife and the environment as well as sustainable into the future.”

We want to highlight two key lessons from this IDNR initiative for private farmland owners

First, you have the right to change how your farmland is farmed so that your land is treated in a way that fits your values. Not only do you have the right to have your land stewarded better, but there’s the possibility of deep satisfaction over time. Similar to the reward of restoring an old home, restoring life to a piece of land does your heart good. And it’s possible to have a close partnership with your farmer around good conservation practices.

Second, it’s important to carefully consider the circumstances of the farmer or farmers you currently have a relationship with. Without having experience, a new practice like cover cropping can seem very risky to a farmer. Farmers don’t like risk, and they don’t like to fail right in front of their neighbors who are always watching each other. 

So ask yourself whether there’s a way to reduce the risk and cost to your partner-farmer (assuming he/she is at least willing to go along with your commitment to more conservation-friendly practices) through cost sharing and making available expert advice. A gradual transition might also make more sense and be more appealing to the farmer 

And ask yourself whether you are making the farmer absorb all the risk and cost of something new without giving them a chance to benefit? Longer-term leases, for example, give the farmer more incentive to invest in long-term practices for soil health.  Flex leases are another way to more equitably share risk and reward.