You may have noticed them last summer along an Illinois highway – contoured waves of emerald corn separated by broad, winding ribbons of grass.
Less breathtaking is the winter vista: crops reduced to brown stubble and shifting residues.
Both sights inspire Ted Gilles. This Peoria County farmer and his brother, Ron, see an unplowed, post-harvest field as a promise kept to nature, and a patch of prairie grass or a grassy waterway as an investment in the planet and agriculture’s future.
Nearly 320 of the Gilles brothers’ 700 acres are devoted to soil and water protection, animal habitat, and prairie preservation under the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and the federal Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP).
Their farmstead is a showcase and a classroom; hundreds of visitors climb onto hayracks each summer and out of school buses each fall to view prairie grasses, wildflowers, woodlands, wetlands, and the occasional blue heron or sandhill crane.
Conserving Soil and Water
The farm itself features a system of dams, terraces, waterways and grass filter strips that capture potential pollutants from water before they reaches streams or rivers.
“No-till” – a farming method that leaves post-harvest residues on the ground over the winter instead of plowing them under with a moldboard plow – helps hold valuable soil in place and further protects water quality.
Illinois leads the nation in no-till farming; in 2007, no-till acres exceeded the number of conventionally tilled acres statewide. That’s a lot of saved soil, but even greater benefits lie ahead.
Atmospheric accumulation of carbon dioxide has been linked to global climate change; long-term, continuous no-till farming traps carbon in the soil.
Further, no-till reduces farm fuel needs – a cost savings for producers that also improves agriculture’s carbon “footprint.”
Encouraging Wildlife Habitat
In addition, the Gilles annually reserve nine to 10 grain plots to help ensure winter survival for a number of wildlife species.
The Gilles’ enthusiasm for hunting led to their foray into conservation roughly 18 years ago.
Ted had long been intrigued by the CRP, which reimburses farmers who remove environmentally sensitive cropland from production and foster wildlife habitat.
Inspired by what he learned, he took the plunge, initially around the edges of the family farm. Gradually, he and Ron moved more acres into the CRP, aided by incentives under the more recent CREP.
“We just love the wildlife, and there’s a lot of wildlife out there,” Ted says. “We see a lot of deer, a lot of pheasants, a lot of quail and turkey.”