By Katrina Vaitkus
In Champaign County, Illinois, one of the major natural resource issues is water quality as it pertains to nitrogen and phosphorous runoff. The Champaign County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) focuses on promoting practices that influence nitrate loss, with the added benefit of improving overall soil health. Thanks to a 2019 NACD Technical Assistance Grant, the SWCD has been able to hire a new staffer to further help farmers address these natural resource concerns.
In 2017, the SWCD developed Saving Tomorrow’s Agriculture Resources (S.T.A.R.), a free tool to assist farm operators and landowners in evaluating their nutrient and soil loss management practices. The tool has been a huge success and is utilized by counties across Illinois and other nearby states in helping reach the states’ Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy goals.
Erin Gundy, the SWCD’s new resource conservationist brought on with the grant, has spent a lot of time helping run the initiative. “This initiative automatically stood out to me, because it’s a farmer-driven initiative to help other farmers in the area gain recognition for the work that they’re doing to reduce nutrient losses and improve water quality,” she said.
Gundy spends a lot of her time promoting S.T.A.R. at various events, including meetings and conferences. She also assists inquiring landowners when they come into the office to learn more about the tool.
“I love it because I’m able to participate in the science side and the programmatic side of it, helping us create better communication and organization as an initiative, while also working with farmers and being a technical resource,” Gundy said.
Beyond the S.T.A.R. program, Gundy continues to assist the SWCD in promoting cover crops and other soil health practices. She has become a part of the Cover Crop Leadership Lab, a program funded by the Sustainable Food Lab to bring different organizations together to brainstorm ways to help and encourage farmers to adopt soil health practices. Through this lab, she’s been able to learn ways to reach women landowners and middle-adopters and encourage them to use these practices.
“This is a wonderful grant that Champaign County SWCD is very fortunate to receive,” said Renee Weitekamp, administrative coordinator for the SWCD. “It has allowed our district the ability to devote additional staff time into promoting and utilizing S.T.A.R. in our county and beyond.”