For the next two years, the Illinois SARE team will focus on four principal initiatives. These four
initiatives are (1) Cover crops and soil health; (2) Improving the Illinois Local Food Economy; (3)
Sustainable agriculture education targeted at high school students; and (4) beginning farmer/rancher training. The first priority aligns with the dominant agricultural commodities within Illinois. Over the last several years, Illinois farmers have planted between 21 and 22 million acres of corn and soybeans, yet cover crop use hovers in the low single digit percentages. There is clearly a great opportunity to effect change in the practices of Illinois farmers; but the challenge is significant and the reluctance of Illinois farmers to embrace cover crop use emphasizes the difficulties in changing established farm practices.
Cultivating local foods has been an Illinois SARE theme for several years. Again, Illinois is ripe for increased local food production with major population hubs of Chicago and St. Louis serving as demand centers, and with abundant farm land with extraordinarily rich soils capable of producing bountiful yields. However, rebuilding the capacity to support farmers growing diverse crops is a challenge faced in Illinois as well as many regions of the country where cultivation of specialty crops has nearly vanished. Sustainable agriculture is a critically important concept for the future of planet, yet getting the message across to growers, consumers, and others has proved problematic. Getting this information out to high school and community college students can give them valuable information and help inform their career choices.
The average age of farmers continues to increase, reaching 58.3 years according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture. Becoming a farmer is a challenging occupation, and beginning farmers and ranchers face the challenge of having adequate capital to buy or rent land and equipment as well as the specialized knowledge needed to successfully farm. Training programs are valuable to provide beginning farmers and ranchers the knowledge needed to successfully begin a new farm or ranch.
We will focus our efforts on a wide range of educators and influencers including University of Illinois Extension staff, USDA employees, non-profit organizations interested in sustainable farming, high school and community college agriculture teachers, and others interested in disseminating information related to sustainable agriculture. The U of I Extension staff includes 10 commercial agriculture educators, 17 horticulture educators, and 9 local food system and small farms educators, and these staff work directly on issues related to sustainability in food and commercial plant production systems.
Additionally, U of I Extension has 50 staff devoted to youth education and 4-H programming. We will also cultivate educators from other governmental and non-profit organizations that work directly with growers to support agricultural sustainability. Examples of these organizations includes USDA NRCS, the Land Connection, the Savanna Institute, Green Lands Blue Waters, the Agricultural Watershed Institute, etc.
Beginning in 2018, Bruce Branham, Professor in the Department of Crop Sciences and Doug Gucker, University of Illinois Extension Educator in Local Food Systems and Small Farms became the cocoordinators for SARE in Illinois. Mary Hosier began serving as a part-time coordinator for SARE in 2011 and transitioned to the full-time SARE coordinator in 2018. Mary manages Illinois SARE grants and financial transactions, coordinates web-based communications and maintains a social media presence for SARE in Illinois, serves as the point of contact for educators and grant writers for Illinois SARE, and provides outreach and a SARE presence at events throughout Illinois.
Initiative #1 – Cover Crops and Soil Health
Illinois has some of the most productive soils in the world and in 2018 approximately 22 million
acres of Illinois farmland will be planted to corn or soybeans. The value of cover crops has been a topic of research, education, and extension activities for at least the past decade, and yet, the adoption of cover crops by Illinois farmers is in the low single digits (Rundquist and Carlson, 2017). A number of factors may be responsible for the low rate of cover crop adoption, but the value of cover crops is clear.
If agriculture sustainability is our goal, and it most assuredly is, then the adoption of cover crops by Illinois farmers will have the biggest immediate impact on sustainability. Cover crops reduce soil erosion and nutrient losses while simultaneously improving soil health and soil tilth. Continuing to support education and on-farm research activities that demonstrate the value of cover crops is our number one goal.
1) Work with the Illinois Department of Agriculture, USDA NRCS, and University of Illinois
Extension to help sponsor and deliver workshops and field days on cover crop usage,
benefits, and opportunities within Illinois.
2) Work with Illinois Extension to sponsor mini-grants with Illinois farmers to evaluate cover
crops on Illinois farms.
3) Support Illinois educators with mini-grants and travel scholarships focused on cover crop
value and adoption strategies.
4) Distribute new informational brochures on cover crop issues to Illinois farmers through our
committee activities, U of I Extension, and other educators.
1) By 2020, University of Illinois Extension will sponsor at least 5 regional meetings within
Illinois to share with Illinois Farmers the results of cover crop trials throughout the State.
2) Will sponsor 8-12 mini-grants with farmers throughout the State of Illinois to evaluate cover
crops on the farm.
3) Over 20 % of Illinois farmers will receive SARE materials on cover crop use and value.
1) Attendees at regional meetings will be given evaluations to determine change in knowledge
and intent to use new information.
2) Number of farmers enrolled in the cover crops trial is critical to the success of this program.
Initiative #2 – Improving the Illinois Local Food Economy
Developing a local food economy has been a goal of many states that have relied upon the
mega-producers in California, Texas, Florida, or Mexico for much of their fresh, specialty crop produce. The re-establishment of a local food system has proven to be a challenge as the infrastructure for a local food system has largely vanished in most states including Illinois. Many Illinois specialty crop producers rely on farmer’s markets for the bulk of their sales. While farmer’s markets command better prices, they are labor intensive and demand is unpredictable. It is difficult for many local specialty crop
producers to generate adequate revenue from farmer’s markets alone.
Local foods can contribute to sustainable agriculture in several important ways. Many local
producers of specialty crops tend to either opt for organic certification or use many organic production practices. They tend to use cover crops as green manures, reducing the use of synthetic fertilizers in their production practices which reduces the risk of soil erosion and nutrient runoff/leaching. Specialty crop growers typically grow a number of crops resulting in increased diversity within the landscape, which can aid pollinator habit and diversity.
The strength of local foods is to produce ultra-fresh produce or unique, niche products that
can’t be found in every grocery store in America. Illinois, with its emphasis on commodity grain crops, should focus effort on the development and marketing of specialty and value-added grain products. In addition, educational programming aimed at beginning farmers and ranchers is needed to continue to provide resources to those who want to begin an agricultural career. Additional educational resources will be focused on marketing strategies for Illinois Specialty Crop producers. Without suitable markets for producers, local food production will be relegated to niche status.
1) Work with the Illinois Farm Bureau, the Land Connection, the Savanna Institute, and
University of Illinois Extension to provide educational opportunities that support the
development of local food producers and marketers within Illinois.
2) Support travel scholarships for educators to attend conferences and workshops that focus
on local foods, adding value to local foods, specialty grain marketing, distribution, and
growth, and other topics that support Illinois specialty crop production.
3) Work with Illinois Extension to sponsor a regional workshop on specialty grain crop
production and marketing.
1) By 2020, the University of Illinois Extension in collaboration with other partnering
organizations will sponsor a specialty grains workshop.
2) By 2020, the Illinois SARE will be a co-sponsor of a regional workshop on the opportunities
available for adding value to local produced foods.
1) Attendees will complete pre- and/or post-event evaluations to determine change in
knowledge and adoption of new practices.
2) Follow-up reports on use of information to develop or deliver educational programs to client
(how many programs, number of attendees, plans to change practices) will be completed by
Initiative #3 – Sustainable Agriculture Education in High Schools and Community Colleges
Current agronomic production practices are efficient, make economic sense, and provide
incomes and jobs for many throughout the Midwest. However, many of these production practices contribute to greenhouse gas emissions; nutrient loading into our lakes, rivers, and drainage waterways; and a reduction in biodiversity across the Midwest. Education is a key approach to increasing our societal understanding of our current food production system and ways to make agriculture sustainable for the long term. Focusing on developing sustainable agriculture education at the high school and
community college level is a long-term approach to educating the public on the need to change Illinois agriculture.
1) Encourage high school and community college agriculture faculty to apply for travel grants
to attend conferences and workshops on the development of modules on sustainable
agriculture for high school and community college students.
2) Support University of Illinois Extension Staff and Faculty to develop a summer teaching
academy for high school and community college faculty that focuses on agricultural
education, agricultural sustainability, and the use of agriculture and plants to teach high
school and community college students about the many issues that surround food
production systems in the United States.
3) Work with high school teachers of agriculture to support the development of modules and
curricula, including experiential learning, that can be used by teachers throughout Illinois.
High school teachers will be encouraged to apply for mini-grants and other funding
opportunities that will spur development of educational materials.
4) SARE representatives will attend the Illinois State High School Teachers of Agriculture
meetings in the summers of 2019 and 2020 to promote SARE programs and raise the
visibility of SARE to the conference attendees.
1) At least 50 high school and community college faculty members will attend the University of
Illinois summer teaching academy.
2) At least 10 high school teachers of agriculture will be awarded travel grants to conferences
that will improve their ability to teach high school students.
3) The Illinois SARE website will serve as a central repository to house sustainable agriculture
modules and curricula as they are developed.
4) Use 2-4 mini-grants per year to support high school and community college faculty to use
their greenhouse or demonstration areas for sustainable agriculture demonstrations and
hands-on experiential learning.
1) Attendees will complete pre and/or post-teaching academy evaluations indicating change in
knowledge and intention to implement new teaching practices.
2) Attendees will complete follow-up reports on the use of information to develop or deliver
new educational programming to high school and community college classes.
Initiative #4 – Beginning Farmer/Rancher training
Starting a new farm or ranch can be an immense undertaking. Land must be acquired or rented
which can require significant financial resources or backing. Beyond the land requirements, beginning farmers and ranchers need specialized equipment, business training, marketing expertise, and, especially, knowledge of how to grow or raise excellent quality agricultural products. SARE’s focus on
training the trainer is well-suited to help beginning farmers or ranchers on many of these educational areas. It is critical that our nation have adequate numbers of well-trained farmers or ranchers in order to ensure a safe, reliable food supply for our country. While much of the concern of our politicians has focused on losing manufacturing jobs to China, Mexico, and other countries, our national security certainly rests on having a secure supply of food. The importance of training and assisting new farmers
or ranchers can’t be overstated.
1) Support travel grants for Extension educators to attend conferences and training on
beginning farmer-rancher topics.
2) Provide mini-grants to educators who wish to develop beginning farmer rancher training.
3) Work with SARE coordinators in other states in the region to support the development of
farmer/rancher training programs.
1) 30% of extension educators in the Local Foods and Small Farms group will get training on
beginning farmer/rancher topics in the 2019-2020 time frame.
2) We will ensure that one proposal is submitted to a Federal funding source to support
beginning farmer/rancher training by an extension educator or University faculty member.
1) Extension educators will complete reports describing the information gained and the value
of the educational event for future educators.
Education & Outreach Initiatives
Demonstrate to Illinois Farmers that cover crops will, over time, improve soil quality, reduce nitrate leaching, and maintain or improve crop yields over time.
We will implement a project with 8-10 Illinois Farmers chosen to include each geographic zone of Illinois (Northern, Central, and Southern). In 2019 we developed a protocol for each geographic zone and have begun the process of identifying and selecting farmers for this 5-year demonstration program. Each farmer will select 10-40 acres of ground and will use cover crops annually from 2020-2024. We will monitor soil properties over time while the farmer will track yield in the cover cropped area and equal area of non-cover cropped ground. Once this project gets further along, SARE will sponsor field days at selected farm sites to educate growers regarding the value of cover crops in Illinois.
We expect that this project will lead to increased adoption of cover crops in Illinois through demonstration of the values of cover crops by Illinois Farmers. Farmers will be shown through demonstration plots and data how cover crops have improved soil quality and reduced nitrate leaching.
Support Illinois educators so they are better equipped to help Illinois citizens who are interested in beginning a farm or ranch operation.
We will encourage Illinois extension educators to attend training and conferences on Farmer/Rancher training so that they use this knowledge to help Illinois citizens interested in beginning agricultural businesses.
We will actively solicit Illinois Extension Educators to attend educational conferences and seminars that provide training to enable new potential farmers and ranchers to understand and prepare for the challenges of beginning a new agricultural business.
Educational & Outreach Activities
Face of SARE
The Illinois SARE Coordinators brought SARE materials and presence to a number of Illinois conferences in 2019 including the Illinois Specialty Crops Conference in Springfield, IL (1/9-11/19); the Midwest Cover Crop Council Annual Meeting & Conference in Springfield, IL (2/21/19); the Illinois Forage Expo in Winnebago, IL (6/19/19); the University of Illinois Agronomy Day in Urbana, Il (8/22/19); and the Illinois State Extension Conference in Champaign, IL (11/20/19).