Agricultural innovation, like the crops we grow, must come from the bottom up. Some big ideas may come from laboratories and think tanks, but it’s at the ground level – in a farmer’s hands – that things take root.

Through a $14 million federal grant, the Natural Resources Division of the Illinois Department of Agriculture is taking AIM. The target – in collaboration with farmers – is to reduce nutrient loss, build soil health, manage water resources, increase yields, and make farms more profitable and adaptable to climate challenges.

AIM – Agroecology + Innovation Matters – will hit this target over three years with 40 new Conservation Planners spread across the state’s NRCS field offices; a newsletter to highlight best practices throughout Illinois; and making educational resources available to educators across the state’s elementary and high schools and institutions of higher education.

Nutrient loss contributes to challenges downstream and fails to increase targeted yields. Healthier soil leads to better yields and less erosion. We want to give farmers a hand for trying new practices, participating in federal and state conservation programs, and applying their knowledge to emerging challenges.

Farming in Illinois is different from farming in New York or California. Farming in Jo Daviess County is different from farming in Jackson or Sangamon County. Farming the front 40-acre field at the home place can be significantly different from the back 40-acre field to the south.

The “experts” can give farmers tools and ideas, but those who work the land are best-positioned to experiment – to innovate by figuring out which tools work best on which fields, and when, and how intensively, to use them. Farmers are the ones best-positioned to listen to the land.

Their “tools” include no-till practices, cover crops, precision farming, good data, hunches, curiosity and, most of all, nature.

Farmers using winter cover crops for years, or even decades, find that decaying root systems help soil absorb rains, allowing the roots of cash crops to extend deeper into groundwater during August dry spells. Such examples of agroecology allow farmers to let nature do the work.

The tools and conservation practices can increase yields and reduce input costs over time, but yields may drop during a period of transition. Many federal, state, and local programs, and some from the private and non-profit sectors, offer cost share incentives to qualifying farmers in transition.

Throughout this project, we anticipate that producers will see broad benefits – economic, environmental, social, nutritional, and cultural – as holistic results of their agroecological practices. Working at different levels and scales, and in different environmental and cultural contexts, they will meet multiple sustainability objectives simultaneously – because agroecology is based on bottom-up, local processes, that serve local needs of producers and their communities.

Over the coming years, AIM’s newsletter and supporting resources will highlight the progress of innovative farmers and share their experiences. As conservation planners, educators, and writers make stories and information available, AIM will illustrate that, truly, Agroecology + Innovation Matters.

Story by Brian Williams — a freelance writer, consultant, and “Dot Connector” who contributes to AIM Illinois through his association with HNA Networks.

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