By Erin Bush, Champaign County SWCD and Megan Baskerville, The Nature Conservancy
The Saving Tomorrow’s Agriculture Resources (S.T.A.R.) initiative is an innovative conservation program that helps farmers, ranchers and landowners track how well they are caring for our soil and water while producing crops using the free S.T.A.R. field evaluation tool.
Created in 2017 by the Champaign County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) in Illinois, the S.T.A.R. initiative sought to meet the agricultural goals in the state’s Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy plan. That plan, developed by the state’s Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), lays out a comprehensive suite of best management practices for reducing nutrient loads from wastewater treatment plants, urban, and agricultural runoff. Similar strategies have been developed by 11 other states in the Mississippi River Basin since 2015, as a result of the U.S. EPA’s 2008 Gulf Hypoxia Action Plan.
How Does it Work?
S.T.A.R. participants complete a one-page field form that is scored by a local reviewer, usually the local SWCD office, which assigns points for everything from cover crops and fertilizer used for nutrient management at different points before and during the growing season to various conservation practices used on that field to prevent runoff into nearby water sources. Individual fields are given a rating from one to five stars, and participants can receive a sign for their fields to identify their S.T.A.R. designation.
S.T.A.R. uses a committee of university researchers and other industry experts to ensure the field forms accurately represent nutrient loss reduction and how those affect the natural resources of the state. As new states implement S.T.A.R., they create their own science advisory committees to reflect the most pressing resource concerns in their area.
For SWCD staff, the S.T.A.R. tool may be reminiscent of conservation planning tools used to learn more about a producer’s farm and management systems. S.T.A.R. provides a perfect conversation starter for any producer and SWCD staff, including laying out what they’re currently doing, while identifying incremental practice changes that could increase water quality. With its simple and compelling format, S.T.A.R. will engage growers who traditionally haven’t sought out SWCD assistance.
“Our experience with S.T.A.R. farmers is they never realized how easy it can be to prevent runoff and protect our water supplies and how important it is to take the extra time to plan for and execute a sustainable farming strategy on their fields,” said Champaign County SWCD’s S.T.A.R. Program Coordinator Bruce Henrikson.
“We hope to show more farmers that conservation practices are not a luxury for farms with economic means, but a natural and necessary investment in the health of our soil, our water and our state,” Henrikson said.
Participating is free and as simple as completing a field form that can be found on the S.T.A.R. website at www.starfreetool.com. Paper field forms can also be downloaded from the website. 2020 field forms will be available starting July 1, 2020 through February 2021.