Beginning this fall, a coalition of stakeholders in agriculture will ramp up their promotion of responsible nutrient-management practices — including no-till, cover crops and precision technology — on farms in several endangered Illinois watersheds.

Some $600,000 in start-up funding over 2 years will be provided by the Illinois Corn Marketing Board, Illinois Soybean Association and fertilizer manufacturers Agrium, CF Industries, Koch Fertilizer, The Mosaic Company and Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan — all members of the Illinois Fertilizer & Chemical Association.

The "Keep It for the Crop by 2025" (KIC) program will demonstrate, implement and track the rate of adoption of enhanced nutrient-stewardship practices initially in six different Illinois watersheds identified by the state's EPA as a priority for nutrient-load reductions.

The Illinois Council on Best Management Practices (CBMP) will implement the program. CBMP's members include the Illinois Corn Growers Association, Illinois Farm Bureau, Illinois Fertilizer & Chemical Association, Illinois Soybean Association, Illinois Pork Producers and Syngenta Crop Protection.

"We had zero money for this effort until a couple of weeks ago," says Illinois no-tiller Mike Plumer, who was hired by CBMP to coordinate the coalition. "We're using the money to hire someone full-time to do educational programs in the watersheds. IFCA is providing office space and the personnel."

Convincing farmers to change their operational practices at a time of high grain prices may prove difficult. But Plumer thinks the right combination of stakeholders is getting involved.

The effort will focus on the "4Rs of Nutrient Stewardship: Right Source, Right Rate, Right Time, Right Place" often cited in production agriculture. KIC's program will target both producers and custom applicators.

No-till, cover crops, split nitrogen applications or spring sidedressing, and variable-rate application methods are among the practices farmers may hear more about.

"It's a matter of having lots of demonstrations, trials and public input. It's just putting it in front of enough people and getting them signed up in these watersheds," Plumer says. "One farmer can see other farmers doing it and see that it works. And we'll use the funding to do research on the economics and yield results for nutrient management."

Even the Sierra Club, which is often at odds with agriculture over pollution issues, is voicing its support for the program.

"We know farmers want clean water, and we also know they want to avoid waste and unnecessary costs in their operation," says Jack Darin of the Illinois Sierra Club in a statement. "By using the latest techniques and knowledge to apply the right amount of nutrients, at the times when the crops need it, farmers can cut costs and improve water quality."

The Illinois EPA has identified six priority watersheds for nutrient reductions, including Lake Bloomington, Lake Vermilion, Lake Decatur, Vermilion River (Illinois Basin), Salt Fork Vermilion River (Wabash Basin) and Lake Mauvaisse Terra.

Marcia Wilhite, chief of the IEPA's Bureau of Water, says lakes and rivers in those watersheds have water-quality problems due to highly levels of nitrogen or phosphorus, or both. "The Illinois EPA strongly endorses efforts to promote voluntary action by producers to adopt nutrient stewardship practices in their watersheds," Wilhite says in a statement.

The KIC group is also working to secure dedicated funding through state legislation that would amend the Illinois Fertilizer Act of 1961.

Senate Bill 2010 requires distributes to pay a designated fertilizer tonnage assessment to a newly created Illinois Nutrient Research & Education Council, which would pursue research and educational programs that ensure adoption and implementation of practices that optimize nutrient-use efficiency, ensure soil fertility and address environmental concerns with regard to fertilizer use."

The council would include farmers and farming organizations, fertilizer dealers, representatives from environmental groups, state government and the fertilizer industry, agronomists and others.

Plumer says money for research and education is supposed to be set aside in the state department of agriculture's budget, but previous governors have taken the funds for other purposes. The bill — currently in limbo in a committee — would take the funds out of the department's budget and place them with a private foundation, Plumer says.