Dick Lyons, former Lincoln Land Community College and Illinois State University agriculture professor, had the highest yields in corn and wheat, and fourth highest in soybeans, during a census in 2018. Dick credits using no-till, cover crops, and other conservation practices for helping to release nutrients in his soil while keeping water runoff clean. Dick lobbied state legislators for the adoption of Soil Health Week through his role with the Illinois Association of Drainage Districts. 

Dick Lyons was one of four founders of Illinois Soil Health Week. He lobbied state legislators for its adoption through his role with the Illinois Association of Drainage Districts. And as he gears up for the third annual Soil Health Week March 4 to 10, 2024, he’s looking forward to a triennial soil sampling on his Montgomery County farm.

In 2018, he was the county’s top corn producer, with 296 bushels per acre. He also led the county that year with 97 bushels of wheat per acre – and was No. 4 in soybean production, at 93 bushels.

To what does he attribute his success in an area with what he describes as “average ground?”


A cousin harvests Lyons’ 300 acres with him. He said, “I wanted a yield monitor on the combine, so I bought it for him. You can see the layering, the yields going up and down. It requires zone management instead of yield management. Very few people have one soil type,” and it may require different management of different parts of a single field.

Lyons first tried no-tilling for corn in 1976, then soybeans in 1987. In 2012 he started using cover crops – initially spring oats, radishes, and rape, with winter kill. Four years later, he decided to plant cover crops that would be green throughout the spring: barley, legumes like Austrian winter peas, and the brassicas. Cereal rye was a mainstay.

Water with soil (top) mixes with cleaner water (bottom) from Dick Lyons' farm field.
Dick Lyons took a photo of his clean water (below) meeting runoff from neighboring fields at his farm outside Harvel, Illinois. Dick is active with the Association of Illinois Soil and Water Conservation Districts and the Illinois Association of Drainage Districts.
Drainage ditch with long grasses cuts through fields with cover crops, and bordered by a grass filter strip.
Dick Lyons uses edge-of-field conservation practices on his fields like filter strips. Dick lobbied state legislators for the adoption of Soil Health Week through his role with the Illinois Association of Drainage Districts.

Teacher and farmer

Lyons is 78. He spent almost half of those years in the classroom – facing the students. He taught high school agriculture in Minooka for five years, then spent 30 years teaching at Lincoln Land Community College, and two more at Illinois State University. He farmed through those years, too – that’s one reason he farms only 300 acres: “Nobody wanted to rent to a part time farmer,” he said.

But what he lacked in acreage, he made up for in the Continuing Studies Department of the School of Hard Knocks – where he learned how to nurture the soil that gave him bragging rights in 2018. 

“If I had 3,000 or 30,000 acres, I’d do the same things,” Lyons said.

That’s a lot of acreage for someone as curious as Lyons – someone who loves data. Someone who sees the variation in the yield monitor and wonders what’s going on in the soil when the yield jumps in this patch or plummets in another one. Someone who studies what varieties of cash crops to plant, and what mix of cover crops to use before which cash crop.

“You gotta walk the fields,” he said. “I take my iPad with me and take pictures of something – an unusual weed or something in the soil – send it off to somebody” to find out what it is. “I test soil every three years, so you’re testing after a different crop each time. I can’t wait to get that done this spring.” This is the kind of good information, he said, “that you can’t learn in the coffee shop.”

Wishing on a STAR

There are so many variables in the soils – so many differences from one county to the next, or one farm or field to the next; even within a single field – that regulation is not the answer to nutrient runoff, rural water quality, or soil health. Lyons prefers initiatives like Saving Tomorrow’s Agriculture Resources (STAR). The stars that farmers earn are not the solution to nutrient runoff or soil health, but they – and the incentive payments – nudge farmers to seek the answers.

“The philosophies are right. The idea of STAR is important – but how do we move it forward?” Lyons wondered. “How do we get people to evaluate their farm based on their practices?”

It all gets back to soil health

“Soil health became a buzzword over the past five years,” Lyons said. “But my first real knowledge came from listening to Ray Archuleta” at a Soil Health Academy event in St. Louis. After Archuleta retired from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, he started the academy to emphasize such things as soil aggregation – the organic matter that holds together the clay, sand, and silt that make up the soil. In healthy soil, the organic matter is strong, absorbent, and undisturbed. Plowing breaks up the critical organic matter, leaving soil vulnerable to blowing in the wind or being washed away in the furrows.

“We’re already seeing more and more no-till, strip-till, cover crops,” Lyons said, noting that farmers are gaining interest in different approaches. “I tell people to try things on your best ground. Work in concentric circles around your farm. We need to make individual management decisions on a day-by-day basis.”

Those new approaches to farming already have first-adopters, like Lyons. STAR is nurturing the middle adopters. But Lyons, after all those years of teaching, is still looking to the next generations.

“Land prices are going up,” he said. “Interest rates, too. I’d like to see landowners rent not to highest bidder, but to younger farmers.”

Listen to Dick Lyons on The 21st Show on WILL (starting 1:28) talking about the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico with shrimper Acy Cooper and others.

Story by Brian Williams — a freelance writer, consultant, and “Dot Connector” who contributes to AIM Illinois through his association with HNA Networks.
Photos and video by Steve Warmowski — communications coordinator for the Agroecology + Innovation Matters initiative after a photojournalism career at newspapers in Illinois and Michigan.

Watch video of Dick Lyons telling how he turned average soils and highly erodible ground into the #1 corn and wheat fields in Montgomery County with conservation practices.
Frosty cover crop grasses
Frosted cover crops on one of Dick Lyons’ fields near Harvel, Illinois.

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