Illinois 2023-24 State PDP Plan of Work

Progress report for NCIL22-001

Project Type: PDP State Program
Funds awarded in 2023: $140,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2024
Grant Recipient: University of Illinois
Region: North Central
State: Illinois
State Coordinator:
Doug Gucker
University of Illinois
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Project Information


Over the past two years, Illinois SARE (IL SARE) has sponsored state-wide research and demonstration on cover crops, supported e-marketing programming for local produce farmers needing to sell producer to consumers during the Covid pandemic, sponsored and had a presence at the Illinois Organic Grains Conference and the Illinois Specialty Crops Conference (ISCC), publicized grant opportunities available through IL SARE and NCR SARE, and participated in cover crop field days. With the help of the NCR SARE communications specialist, the IL SARE web presence has been updated.  In addition, the IL State Sustainable Agriculture Coordinator (ISSC) has provided guidance to people wishing to submit a NCR SARE grant application, and reviewed many proposals before submittal.  2022_ISCC_Sponsor

Over the past two years, there have been many changes in the leadership of IL SARE, Dr. Branham resigned as State Sustainable Ag co-coordinator as well as the IL SARE program assistant during the first half of 2021. None of those positions have been able to be refilled. In addition, the current ISCC is working through a recent family crisis.

The past two years has seen a shift in how farmers want to receive educational content. There seems to be a shift to a preference for remote learning over in-person, which is a continuing challenge in how to deliver agricultural educational content remotely in a way that farmers/ranchers find engaging and useful.

Project Objectives:

The IL SARE team proposes four areas of focus for 2021-22. The funding of a part-time program assistant in 2023 to provide better day-to-day management of SARE activities. Our four primary initiatives for the 2023-24-time frame are highlighted by a state-wide demonstration/research project on cover crops and soil health for corn/soybean growers. Agriculture in Illinois is dominated by these two crops and this project will provide invaluable education and outreach activities for Illinois farmers. Two of our other initiatives focus on beginning and new farmers and ranchers. A state-wide focus on beginning farmers and ranchers will focus on improving the business management skills, it has been noted within our state that many new farm operations are lacking the business management skills necessary to be a successful sustainable business. IL SARE will partner with IL Extension to produce a series of short videos and in-depth webinars on better business practices to implement by new and beginning farmers to improve the sustainability of their farms into the future. The other focus will be developing and implementing marketing strategies for these new and beginning farms and their farmers. For this, we will continue working with The Land Connection to develop more training webinars focused on successful marketing strategies for selling the products produced on their farms.  Our final initiative will focus on "Adapting to a changing climate and other food system disruptions" with  IL SARE's efforts focused on promoting, sponsoring and supporting organizations working in the areas of sustainable and regenerative agriculture to encourage the adoption of better soil health practices, increasing the use of more diversified crop rotations, the implementation of better integrated pest management practices that reduce reliance on pesticides, and the reintroduction of livestock on the farm as a vital part of being a sustainable farm.



In the past and up to the present, IL SARE has partnering with and sponsoring IL Extension, USDA and state agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGO) programs and activities to increase the knowledge of sustainable farming practices and methods with the goal of creating a more sustainable local  agriculture system that supports farmers/ranchers, their communities and the environment. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has effected how program participants wish to receive content. Pre- and during the pandemic all educational programming had to shift to remote learning options due to in-person meeting restrictions. After COVID, farmers and producers are no longer willing to travel to in-person meetings unless there is some form of hands-on training with the ability to inspect and see how well the new practice works in the field. As one example, the 2022 ISCC was available to attend in person or remotely. Approximately half the participants attended remotely, which was a decrease in attendance of nearly 200 people. This is causing a continued transition to remote trainings and not the anticipated return of people wanting in-person programming after the Covid meeting and mask restrictions were removed.  IL SARE is now spending more time reaching out to IL Extension, agencies and NGO's doing sustainable ag programming to inform them of IL SARE funding opportunities and resources for remote trainings as well as in-person ones.


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Educational approach:

Over the past two years, the Illinois Sustainable State Coordinator has attended cover crop and soil health field days to explain the role SARE in Illinois and to provide SARE resources including those related to soil health and cover crops. IL SARE has sponsored and had a presence at the Illinois Specialty Crops Conference (ISCC), and the Illinois Organic Grains Conference, plus had a presence at the Live Local: Food and Farmers Market Conference. Live_Local-2022, 2022_ISCC_Sponsor

IL SARE has worked with and is continuing to work with The Land Connection to remote educational programming for small farmers in the area of improving marketing skills, tactics and efficiencies with their web and in-person sales. The Land Connection with the help of IL SARE was able to receive a NCR SARE grant to develop an on-line materials to show farmers how to do e-marketing at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and provided one-on-one remote e-marketing assistance to participants in the program to help them set up their e-market site. IL SARE is currently working with The Land Connection to develop an on-line training for e-commerce marketing strategies of the local foods producing farms in Illinois.

IL SARE has devoted more effort in promoting SARE grants and resources through local farmer on-line groups such as the IDEA Farm Network and Advocates For Urban Agriculture. This led in part by the decrease in attendance at in-person program delivery conferences such as the ISCC. 

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Soil Health Initiative

To increase in Illinois, the knowledge and use of cover crops to promote better soil health, reduce the loss of nutrients and soil into local surface waters and to reduce the widespread use of a rotation of two summer annual crops with a 6-month long span of bare, exposed soil during the non-cropping months.


In 2019-2020, the Illinois SARE team planned and launched a state-wide demonstration/research project to illustrate the value of cover crops in Illinois agriculture. Partnering with the Illinois Farm Bureau, we announced the project and requested interest from farmers throughout Illinois. Illinois covers a wide geographic area and 4 USDA hardiness zones, making generalization regarding cropping systems is very difficult. Nine Illinois farmers distributed throughout the state to represent the different growing environments in Illinois, with three farmers in southern Illinois, three farmers in central Illinois, and three farmers in northern Illinois. Each farmer has agreed to participate in this trial for 5 years from 2020-2024. A representative field was divided into two equal sections (10-40 acres per section) with cover crops planted in one section for each of the next five years. We selected five years as we believe that is the minimum time frame needed to show changes in soil quality factors such as infiltration rate, soil organic carbon levels, soil nitrogen increases, and, most importantly, crop yield increases. A cover crop subcommittee consisting of University of Illinois Extension staff in South, Central, and Northern Illinois plus two University of Illinois faculty with soil science expertise. This committee has established the projects protocols for planting cover crops, collecting soil and cover crop biomass samples, the soil test analyses that are used and the general format of the field days.  

Outcomes and impacts:

We anticipate that these trials will help spur the adoption of cover cropping practices by farmers around the State of Illinois. By the end of the trial in 2024, measurable differences in soil quality should be apparent between cover cropped soils versus winter fallow soils. The hypothesis is that some, but not all, sites will see measurable differences in crop yields. Analysis of differences in soil quality and crop yields between sites hopefully will  yield valuable information regarding the benefits of cover crops for Illinois farmers. 

It is expected that the in-person in the field demonstrations of cover cropped versus non-cover cropped and farmer testimonials will be the best way to drive cover crop adoption within Illinois. Farmers will be able to see how cover cropping has worked on farm close to their own farm. 

Improving Business Management Skills on New Local Farms

The objective is to increase the farm business management skills of new and beginnings in the early years of the farm. The program will focus on farmers/ranchers who have less than 10 years experience and are struggling financially.


Being successful, sustaining farming operation takes not only the ability to manage and produce a high quality product, but requires the skills to manage the farm's costs and revenues with the goal of producing a profit to sustain the farm and its operators. The focus of this program will be to produce and conduct on-line and in-person training materials that focus on the importance of recordkeeping, budgeting and setting goals for the farm and its future. Production is the focus the beginning stages of the farm, so that revenue can be generated. However over time, these new operators begin to realize the importance of those farm business management classes they had in their beginning farmer training programs, but failed to implement properly when they began.

IL SARE will work IL Extension and other organizations to series of trainings on financial recordkeeping, setting financial goals, and the importance of communication in your business. This series of trainings will be on-line for farmers to view as time allows. The trainings will be offered in-person at Illinois Specialty Crop Conference with the opportunity for farm/ranch operators to ask questions of the presenters.

Outcomes and impacts:

The goal of this initiative is to improve the business management skills of a new struggling farm operation that leads to their success not only at the production level but the financial level for the years to come. The outcome of this training series is to provide access to more in-depth trainings on the importance of several important business management topics. These topics will included: financial and production recordkeeping; recordkeeping software; setting goals for your farm or ranch to insure it's sustained operation into the future, the importance of communication with your lender, suppliers and market outlets; and other topics as the need is made known.

A post training evaluation will be conducted as well at the end of the training to see the level of possible implementation. At 6 months to one year after the farms have completed their trainings, a follow up evaluation will be conducted in  to determine the level of implementation of new better business management practices.

Improving Marketing Skills on New Local Farms

This is a continuation of effort begun during the COVID pandemic to help local foods farmers/ranchers get a market outlet for their farm production due to in-person meeting restriction. The objective of this initiative is to improve the local foods farm on-line presence, their e-marketing site, and efficient ways to conduct on-line sales and deliveries.


The Land Connection with the help of  a NCR SARE grant in 2020 was able to quickly produce an on-line training on setting up a farm e-marketing site. From those trainings, it became apparent that there was a need for more trainings with regard to marketing for the local farm to remain sustainable into the future. Today's local foods buyer is wanting easier and more convenient ways to obtain their local foods needs and this is leading to greater demands for marketing and delivering local foods.

IL SARE will work with The Land Connection and the Illinois Farmers Market Association to develop more training webinars focused on marketing strategies for selling the products produced on their farms. The trainings will be an on-line format with the focus on improving a farm's marketing abilities. This will include trainings on: e-marketing sites for the farm; management and delivery software options for e-commerce; farm marketing promotion strategies with other topics added as the need arises.  

Outcomes and impacts:

The learning outcome of this initiative is to provide the local foods producer with the tools and information they need to not only implement e-commerce on their farm, but to keep them informed about the changing landscape of local foods e-commerce. 

After the e-commerce training, an evaluation will given to each farm in the hopes of gaining information on possible level of new e-commerce implementation and ask for topics the they are wanting to learn more about.

Adapting to a changing climate and other food system disruptions

To improve the access to information on farming practices and methods that promote ways to increase a crops or animals ability to thrive during periods of weather stresses. In addition continue to support local efforts encouraging the production of local sustainably produced farm products.


IL SARE's efforts will be focused on promoting, sponsoring and supporting organizations working in the areas of sustainable and regenerative agriculture to encourage the adoption of better soil health practices, increasing the use of more diversified crop rotations, the implementation of better integrated pest management practices that reduce reliance on pesticides, and the reintroduction of livestock on the farm as a vital part of being a sustainable farm. Continue our support and sponsorship of the Illinois Organic Grains Conference, which promotes and educates on the production of sustainably grown small grains and the importance of small grains in a cropping rotation.

IL SARE will forge partnerships with the IDEA Farm Network, the Western Illinois University Organic Farm program, Advocate for Urban Agriculture and Regenerate Illinois. These are all Illinois organizations that promote and conduct sustainable or regenerative agriculture programming. This will be an effort to help these organizations promote their programming and to help support their field days.

Outcomes and impacts:

Outcomes will be to improve the farmer access to reliable, research based information on sustainable agriculture that are working in Illinois.

At least one evaluation will be conducted at the Illinois Organic Grains Conference to measure the willingness to add small grains to a two-crop rotation, and at least one evaluation will be conducted at the Illinois Crop Management Conferences to gauge farmer's willingness to adopt climate-friendly farming practices.

Educational & Outreach Activities

48 Consultations
1 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
3 Minigrants
1 Online trainings
3 Published press articles, newsletters
3 Travel Scholarships
3 Webinars / talks / presentations
2 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

1 Extension
4 Researchers
1 Nonprofit
1 Agency
2 Farmers/ranchers
71 Farmers participated

Learning Outcomes

176 Participants gained or increased knowledge, skills and/or attitudes about sustainable agriculture topics, practices, strategies, approaches
10 Ag professionals intend to use knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness learned

Project Outcomes

3 Grants received that built upon this project
3 New working collaborations
7 Agricultural service provider participants who used knowledge and skills learned through this project (or incorporated project materials) in their educational activities, services, information products and/or tools for farmers
135 Farmers reached through participant's programs

Face of SARE

Face of SARE:

IL SARE has attended a number of conferences and workshops in the past two years. We sponsored the 2022 Illinois Organic Grains Conference organized by The Land Connection. Each year we have a booth at the Illinois Specialty Crops Conference held in Springfield, IL. and distribute literature and information regarding SARE programs.  Several of our advisory committee members have displayed SARE materials at field days or meetings they have attended. 

The ISCC has promoted IL SARE resources and grants through social media, television, radio and print articles. Promotion of IL SARE resources and grants through on-line Illinois-based sustainable agriculture groups (IDEA Farm Network and the Advocates for Urban Agriculture on-line groups) was begun in 2022 due to more sustainable ag programming being conducted on-line. ISCC spoke at two field days in 2022 promoting and distributing NCR SARE grants information and SARE resources.

192 Farmers received information about SARE grant programs and information resources
90 Ag professionals received information about SARE grant programs and information resources

Information Products

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.