Jake Lieb drives his John Deere two-seater around his property and across the shallow Camp Creek. The waterway cuts back and forth through miles of farm fields until it reaches the Sangamon River and eventually pours into Lake Decatur 32 miles away — the man-made source of water for 200,000 people.
These are troubled waters. The city of Decatur paid $100 million in 2021 to dredge enough polluted sediment out of the lake to fill seven Willis Towers — and much of it was from farms like Lieb’s, swept away by increasingly heavy and unpredictable rains. When those rains pour, they funnel topsoil and costly fertilizer into the creek, the river and miles downstream into the lake.
The problem doesn’t end there. This agricultural runoff, occurring in watersheds all over Illinois, eventually ends up in the Gulf of Mexico where it contributes to an oxygen-starved “dead zone” that threatens fish and other sea life.
Lieb wants his remaining soil to stay where it is, and he’s among a small but growing percentage of Illinois farmers experimenting with how. Well before the pile-up in the lake, and before dust storms blanketed I-55 in central Illinois and led to eight fatalities, Lieb was rolling out soil conservation projects. What motivates him, in part, is his two young sons.
“I got to save something for my family, you know what I mean?” asked the 41-year old on a humid afternoon.
Now the city of Decatur, the federal government and a large membership group, the Illinois Farm Bureau, have pledged to assist and pay farmers to reduce water and wind erosion. The extra money is good news for Lieb, who is an early adopter and experimenter. He’s not alone, but he is surrounded by many farmers who stick to the tried-and-true methods of heavy plowing and bare winter fields to grow crops and pay the bills.
Many are resistant to the idea of change, despite the increasing bouts of severe weather they have endured, including this year’s spring drought and torrential rains that followed, and the threat to long-term corn and soybean yields. Extreme weather means more erosion and runoff.
What Lieb has learned is that farming profitably with a conservation mindset requires time and money, trial and error, and a long-term perspective that, in his case, was nurtured by parenthood.
“I didn’t know what the hell I was doing when I started,” he says.
Fewer farmers, more land to steward
The Lieb family has been farming in central Illinois for five generations. But farms don’t look much like they used to. The 72,000 Illinois farms in operation today, covering 75% of the state’s land mass, are much bigger. The number of Illinois farms has shrunk by half over the past 60 years as rapid advances in machinery and technology produced more crop per acre, and children left the farm for jobs in the city. By acreage, Lieb Farms slots into the upper third in size.
Still, the vast majority are considered family farms. Even so, these operators don’t own all the land they tend; much of it is owned by absentee landlords such as investors, family trusts and other non-farmers, with prime ground going for as much as $20,000 per acre.
Two of the biggest farmland owners in Illinois, for example, are the Mormon Church, at number one, and Microsoft founder Bill Gates.
Lieb owns a good chunk of his corn and soybean farm, and pays “cash rent” on the rest. Bumping through the woods as he motors around the border of his family’s land, Lieb keeps a running commentary going in his mild drawl.
He points out where he has been clearing invasive honeysuckle and other brush from a small 30-acre woodland floodplain bordering the creek. He weaves around the black corrugated plastic drain pipe he placed throughout the woods to protect the native pecan, oak and hickory trees he planted, just like his dad used to do.
In another sensitive area of hilly ground, Lieb took four acres out of crop rotation, at no small cost to his revenues, and installed a grass waterway that allows heavy rains to run down an incline without carrying away soil. On a much larger scale, Lieb plants cover crops — mostly winter rye — to keep a live root in the ground all winter.
For many years, he has reduced plowing on about half his acreage, and he just built an erosion-blocking terrace partly funded by a federal program.
How Lieb got to be a strong proponent and practitioner of farm conservation techniques is a combination of natural curiosity, wanting to protect the land for his two young boys and the influence of a key person in his life.
Sitting in his shop, waiting on a John Deere repairman, he remembers how his then-88-year-old grandfather was part of a group trying to protect a local aquifer from a proposed landfill. They went to a few meetings together, and on the way home late one night, he noticed how tired his grandfather looked.
“One time I said ‘Grandpa, why you doing this?’ And he goes: ‘For you.’
“I’ll never forget that. I’ll never forget the look on his face. I’ll never forget the way he said it. He just said ‘You.‘”
On Lieb’s farm, conservation is still work in progress; only about a fifth of the farmed acreage is planted with cover crops. Some of the flat, black dirt doesn’t need it, he believes. In addition, the absentee landowners he farms for don’t always have the same incentives.
In 2020, crop prices were high, and an Ohio-based investor wanted to replace a two-acre windbreak with row crops to earn an extra few thousand dollars. Lieb made a case to keep it, but ultimately gave in to keep the contract.
“That was very disheartening,” Lieb said. “We farm for people who live out of state, all they see is the check they get in the mail.”
Living on the land he farms, and following in his ancestors’ shoes, has left its mark.
“Now I’ve got kids, and I look at them, and it motivates me,” Lieb said. “If I question, god, is it worth the money to put the waterway in, is it worth the money to not take that hedgerow out, the money we could gain from it? One look at my kids, and I know what to do.
“I get it now. I understand why (my grandpa) did that for me. Because now I want to do it for them.”
Narrowly averting disaster after drought
Growing up in Macon, Michelle Carr wanted to farm ever since she was a kid. During high school summers she baled hay, and worked two other jobs at Farm & Fleet and a Christmas tree farm. Her parents encouraged her to go to college, so she dutifully got a degree in plant and soil science at Southern Illinois University.
Her dream remained. As a woman she worried that she wouldn’t get a chance to run the family farm, so she got a job as a crop insurance adjuster. But this spring, with the support and tutelage of her 55-year-old uncle, she took the reins of her family’s central Illinois farm and planted her first crops as the boss.
Then, for a month and a half, it barely rained.
Fortunately, her attention to detail got the crops in early, and when the rains finally came to end a state-wide drought, her corn and beans emerged almost unscathed.
In a state where the average age of farmers is 58, Carr is considerably younger — 35 — and one of a small number of women heading a sizable farm over 1,000 acres. A mother, she listens to her uncle’s voice of experience, and uses what she learned in college to help puzzle out the intricacies of soil conservation.
Tired of seeing the intense rains create gullies and washouts in her fields, and understanding the growing threat of global warming, she’s planted about one third of her acreage in cover crops. Like many farmers, she has dramatically reduced costly fertilizer use with advanced technology that crunches soil data and feeds it into a GPS mapping system. She’s even planted a pollinator garden on a few acres of less productive farmland.
“We only have so much soil,” Carr said. “We can’t get more of it.”
But high costs, and the need for special equipment, have slowed her down.
“I try to do my part to help cut back, to make it better,” Carr said. “One day I would like to have everything in a cover crop.”
A long wait to see if changes pay off
Still, measures such as cover cropping can be costly, time-consuming and sometimes risky — which is why more farmers aren’t eager to take them on. Cover crops can reduce yields in the short run, studies have shown. In the Midwest, cover crop usage has tripled in the last decade, but is still miniscule at seven percent.
There’s also the matter of delayed results. How effective these efforts will be, and whether they will be big enough and fast enough to make a difference, won’t be known for years. A 2019 study by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency showed that fertilizer runoff was still rising steadily four years after the state set a goal to reduce it. Meanwhile, a new National Climate Assessment released last week predicts dire consequences on Midwestern corn yields unless humans adapt fast.
Forcing farmers to change has produced powerful political backlash in Europe, and isn’t on the table in the United States; here, incentives are proffered. To overcome farmer resistance to new techniques — including the belief by some that human-driven climate change is a “hoax” — conservation groups hope farmers like Lieb and Carr can be examples of how to “make hay” and conserve resources at the same time.
“We are trying to hit that sweet spot, melding conservation goals and agronomic goals – and still have farmers make a profit,” said Megan Baskerville, the Illinois Ag Program Director at The Nature Conservancy. “Farmers need to see the benefits, see the positives on the farm.”
Today, the USDA tries to incentivize farmers to adopt conservation measures through a library of acronym-laden programs that can be a headache to apply and qualify for. In the past, the average farmer’s odds of getting a grant weren’t great: More applications are submitted than are funded, and the money typically ran out about halfway through the budget year.
Even when money is delivered, conservation advocates say, the USDA is actually spending a tiny percentage of its overall budget on such efforts — and that what it does offer is not always well targeted.
At least the funding shortage will change with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, signed by President Joe Biden last August. The act devotes an unprecedented $20 billion over five years to farm conservation, the biggest investment since the programs began almost a century ago following the Dust Bowl catastrophe.
“There’s been no other time when the opportunity is this large,” said Baskerville, who also worked on the Decatur watershed project.
Closer to home, the Illinois Farm Bureau, which has 75,000 members, has won from the state legislature a round of incentives. Farmers who use cover crops get a discount on farm insurance policies of $5 per planted acre; a fee on fertilizer pays for research and education. The bureau also holds “field days” around the state for members to hear about the latest in conservation practices.
For farmers, the private sector has entered the fray in ways that their fathers and grandfathers couldn’t have imagined. So-called “carbon credits” are creating marriages of convenience between farmers and large corporations, such as New York-based PepsiCo and Chicago-based Archer-Daniels-Midland Company, which are eager to meet environmental pledges they’ve made to the public.
The companies pay money to farmers for conservation measures like cover crops and no-till planting and receive a so-called “credit” for the carbon that was not released into the atmosphere, in essence reducing their own carbon footprint through a trade.
Lieb, ever the early adopter, is one of a small number farmers who has signed one of these contracts — with a large food manufacturer he preferred not to name — and earns $15-20 an acre for cover crops and reduced tillage, which he says isn’t much but helps defray his costs.
“A lot of corporations are trying to get their names on sustainable ag,” Lieb said.
Along with the billions in new federal conservation money, the embryonic carbon credit market could help encourage cover crop planting and less plowing. Such an outcome would make the city of Decatur happy, and in the long run help to keep dust off the highways, the algae out of the waterways and the soil where it belongs.
“It’s about leaving something for tomorrow,” Lieb said. “It’s only ours to borrow. ”
Zachary Nauth is a freelance writer who lives in Oak Park.