Making Illinois Agriculture more sustainable through Cover Crops and New Farmers and Ranchers

Project Overview

Project Type: PDP State Program
Funds awarded in 2020: $129,994.00
Projected End Date: 11/30/2024
Grant Recipient: University of Illinois
Region: North Central
State: Illinois
State Coordinator:
Doug Gucker
University of Illinois


Not commodity specific


  • Crop Production: cover crops
  • Education and Training: demonstration, farmer to farmer, on-farm/ranch research, workshop
  • Farm Business Management: business planning
  • Natural Resources/Environment: carbon sequestration
  • Production Systems: dryland farming, Drip irrigation in specialty crops
  • Soil Management: soil quality/health
  • Sustainable Communities: local and regional food systems

    Proposal abstract:

    Our project will have three main areas of focus. A major area of focus is cover crops in corn/soybean acreage. We have selected 10 farmers throughout Illinois to host 20-80 acre demonstration projects that will be used annually for grower education events. Our second area of focus is beginning farmers and ranchers. We will focus on the business aspects of starting or maintaining a new farm operation including marketing strategies, cost management, and profitability strategies. Our third area of focus is to offer a for-credit course on sustainable agriculture designed for high school teachers of agriculture. This course will be an intensive, one week course on the University of Illinois campus to give HS Ag teachers the background, knowledge, and classroom projects to teach high school students about sustainable agriculture.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Soil Health Initiative


                In 2019-2020, the Illinois SARE team planned and launched a state-wide demonstration 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, difficult, if not impossible. We have selected 10 Illinois farmers distributed throughout the state to represent the different growing environments in Illinois, with four 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 will be 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. Each farmer will receive $3000 in 2020, and $2000 in years 2021-2024.  We have established a cover crop subcommittee consisting of University of Illinois Extension staff in South, Central, and Northern Illinois and several other members with soil science expertise. Cover crop planting decisions will be determined by a cover crop subcommittee member with regional expertise in cover crop performance in conjunction with each grower/cooperator.


    Expected outcomes – We expect that by 2024, measurable differences in soil quality will be apparent between cover cropped soils versus winter fallow soils. We hypothesize that some, but not all, sites will measure differences in crop yields. Analysis of differences in soil quality and crop yields between sites should yield valuable information regarding the benefits of cover crops for growers.


    Activities - Based upon consultations with several University of Illinois soil scientists, we will initiate a number of tests to measure soil health and quality. Annual fall soil sampling will help show the progression of soil quality and health over time. Some tests will be conducted annually and others less frequently to capture long-term changes in soil quality.

                Each farmer has agreed to host one field day per year as part of the cover crop agreement. We anticipate hosting at least one field day per region per year with more field days as the project matures. We believe these in-person demonstrations and farmer testimonials will be the best way to drive cover crop adoption within Illinois.

                Farmers will provide crop yield data annually on cover cropped and the comparison fallow land. These data will be summarized annually and made available to cooperators and other interested groups.


    Evaluation – We will survey each cooperator/grower in 2021 and 2024 to determine best practices for these types of on-site evaluations. We will track the number of attendees at the on-site field days and collect surveys from attendees at field days conducted in 2023 and 2024 when we anticipate observing the greatest effects of cover cropping. The surveys will judge the effectiveness of on-site trials in providing the information needed to encourage cover crop adoption by attendees.



    Assisting New Farmers and Ranchers


                Agriculture is a tough, competitive business. A number of educational programs have focused on helping individuals begin a farming or ranching business.  And while getting new farmers and ranchers started is a noble goal, many who do start find that the business of running a farm or ranch can be quite challenging, particularly in the first several years. The goal of this initiative is to help new farmers and ranchers, those who have actually started a farm or ranch, but may be struggling with issues of profitably, marketing, cost management, etc. We will conduct a series of webinars and in-person events to assist early career farmers and ranchers to improve their overall operations.  In 2021, SARE will facilitate the development and offering of three webinars aimed at specific issues confronting new farmers and ranchers. Those webinars will be offered in the fall/winter of 2021. Those topics will be used as the basis for a face-to-face meeting in the fall/winter of 2022. Illinois SARE will engage with University of Illinois Extension to develop the webinars and then use the materials developed for the webinars as the basis for an in-person conference in 2022.


    Expected Outcomes – We expect these webinars to be a valuable training mechanism for newly minted farmers and ranchers. The in-person conference will also feature mentoring groups that will allow beginning farmers and ranchers to share their experiences, tips, and ideas with their peers from around the state. We hope to reach at least 50 beginning farmers and ranchers with this initiative.


    Activities – We will develop webinars with input from industry professionals and U of I extension staff on three main subject areas: Marketing; Management; and development of online and social media delivery platforms.


    Evaluations – Online evaluations for each webinar will be distributed to all participants. The feedback from these evaluations will be used to improve future iterations of these webinars and to incorporate into the in-person conference to be held in 2022.


    Incorporating Sustainable Agriculture Education into High School Ag Curriculums


                Many issues surround agriculture today, but the most cross-cutting issue is sustainability.  Agriculture’s impact on climate change, community and economic health, and human health is difficult to overstate, and the focus of sustainable agriculture affects all of these areas. Educating the general consumer on these issues is challenging and difficult, and one of the best approaches may be to incorporate this information into high school agriculture curricula. Illinois SARE will sponsor the development of a one-week, intensive course on sustainable and urban agriculture for high school teachers of agriculture hosted on the campus of the University of Illinois. This course will be offered as a 3-credit hour course conducted over five days in the summer. The course will focus on the issues around sustainable and urban agriculture and contain a laboratory section that will be devoted to projects that can be readily transferred to high school curricula offerings.


    Expected outcomes – We expect 15-20 high school teachers of agriculture to participate in the first offering of this class in the summer of 2021. Based on their feedback and course refinement, we expect to have 25-30 high school teachers in 2022. 


    Activities – This activity will take place each summer in mid to late June for one week of instruction. Class activities will start on Monday morning and conclude Friday afternoon.  Courses will include lecture, laboratory, and tours of sustainable agriculture research.


    Evaluations – The primary method of evaluation is a survey that will be conducted at the end of each summer class. The survey will be repeated one year later to determine how much of the material was utilized in the high school classrooms of the attendees. The results of these surveys will be used to improve the content of the class for subsequent offerings.

    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.