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Illinois Land Conservation Program enrollment opens in 68 counties

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the Illinois Department of Agriculture have amassed $50 million in federal and state tax funding to incentivize farmers and ranchers to set aside land for nutrient runoff prevention and water quality protection.

Jamie Diebal, program specialist with the Illinois State Farm Service Agency, said the money will be used to bring back the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP). The program gives rental payments to farmers and ranchers who convert cropland into buffers for river banks for environmental protection safeguards, soil erosion prevention measures and wetland restoration.

Since the application process was opened on June 15, FSA offices have been getting a lot of calls from farmers who are interested in enrolling in CREP, Diebal said.

“We have been working really hard to get CREP up and running again,” Diebal said. “Producers are really excited to have CREP back.”

The program was discontinued in 2015 because of lack of state funding.

CREP helps Illinois meet federal guidelines for clean water protection and gives farmers a way to supplement their incomes. Producers who enroll in the program get a 25% rental rate incentive, she said.

“It’s a win for all of us,” Diebal added.

Farmers can use their marginal land to generate guaranteed annual income, she said.

“If the land is flooding frequently and maybe they are not getting a crop every year, or maybe it has had some water on it so it’s not a top producing area, that’s the kind of land that producers want to put into CRP,” Diebal said.

Unlike the familiar Conserve Reserve Programs (CRP) which caps land rent at $300 an acre, there is no cap on CREP rental payments.

“For Illinois producers, that is a great thing because we have really great soils around here,” Diebal said. “Producers can get whatever rate their soil type qualifies for.”

To be eligible for the program, the land must have a cropping history and it must be located in the Illinois River or Kaskaskia River watersheds. Producers agree to make a 10- to 15-year commitment to keep the land out of agricultural production.

“These are areas that may flood frequently,” Diebal said. “CREP takes the land out of production and puts it into some type of conserving use cover.”

Participants who install mitigation and nutrient loss reduction strategies qualify for incentives and technical support, she said.

“We’ll assist the producer in establishing grasses or trees or a conserving use cover,” Diebal said.

The federal government pays half of the establishment costs for the mitigation and the state picks up the other 50% of that cost.

“By taking the land out of production, we are keeping excess nutrients and nitrates from getting into our streams and rivers,” Diebal said.

Filter strips and forested buffers prevent soil erosion and keep sediment out of streams and rivers. CREP also helps landowners develop and protect wetlands.

“These efforts help reduce runoff, protect our precious soil and improve wildlife habitat,” IDNR Director Colleen Callahan said in a statement.

This article originally appeared on The Center Square.

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