Rachel Borcherding

Rachel Borcherding checks on flowers growing in a high tunnel at the home farm in Marion County.

IUKA, Ill. – Cody and Rachel Borcherding are typical farmers. That means they are big believers in sustainability. They’re always looking for ways to implement conservation practices on their Marion County farm.

“My dad has always been big in conservation,” Rachel said.

The same can be said for her husband’s farm family. It is a quality shared by farmers everywhere.

The Borcherdings recently embarked on a project designed to keep more of their land in production. The 90-acre farm they purchased for the home farm includes a swath of land that sometimes produces nothing in the way of crops. A waterway through the field prevented planting of crops over several acres.

“The waterway and washes were getting really bad,” Borcherding said. “Last year things were worse, with all the rain. We missed out on probably 15 to 20 acres of our ground. That’s quite a bit of income.”

Once the project is completed this month the water will be routed through the waterway, filtered and empty into a nearby stream.

Farmers were keenly aware of sustainability long before it became a catchword. After all, their livelihoods depend on maintaining their land. But like other aspects of agriculture, conservation is a constantly evolving topic.

Some “new” things are old. Some “old” things are new. But as farmers learn more about effective conservation measures, new concerns crop up.

“We do have a lot of those conservation practices that are tried and true,” said Ivan Dozier, Illinois state conservationist.

The latest rage — cover crops ­— is certainly not new but Dozier believes, there are subtle changes in that practice that reflect farmers’ constant quest to test what they are doing and tweak whatever things they believe could be improved.

“Agriculture keeps changing,” he said. “The equipment keeps changing. Even cover crops. That was a normal part of farming for a long time, but not the way we’re using them today, to terminate and plant another crop. The reason we’re putting them out there to is to capture nutrients. It’s a different purpose than in the past.”

The Borcherdings even have conservation in mind for a recently installed 30-by-90-foot high tunnel where Rachel grows pumpkins, strawberries, tomatoes and other produce. The space has a soil floor.

“I’m doing pollinators outside and a cover crop inside the high tunnel,” she said. “It’s not heated, so in the wintertime we can’t really grow anything. We’re going to put in field peas and ryegrass to add nutrients back into the soil.”

She is experimenting with different things, and is considering growing cut flowers in the high tunnel to serve a ready market.

Conservation tillage is among the modern drivers of sustainability today. The same can be said for the increase in tiled acres. The fencerow-to-fencerow agriculture promoted in the middle of the 20th century may have set the movement back a bit, Dozier acknowledges. Conservation practices even changed the way some crops are grown, such as soybeans.

“When soybeans first came on, they were a plow-down crop, like clover,” Dozier said. “But they had soil-building properties. They were grown for fertilization and hay. When you switch to a corn-soybean rotation, a lot of that changes.

“Soybeans were kind of a bad boy when it came to soil erosion because it didn’t leave enough residue on the surface. But when no-till technology came on, no-tilling beans into corn stubble became one of the easiest thing to do.”

Water management has long been a focus of conservation-minded farmers. But new tools have changed the way fields are drained.

“Water and sediment control basins have been around for a long time, even before the agency, when they were trying to figure out how to slow down the velocity of the water,” Dozier said. “Then we started doing things like terraces. They didn’t have tile outlets. With the advent of tile, that put water underground. A lot more farmable.”

Of all conservation practices, however, Dozier believes the increasing focus on cover crops is likely the most common today.

“Cover crops are probably getting the most attention right now,” he said. “Especially because it can be used on every acre of row crops. I’ve been hearing more interest in that particular practice than anything else.”

Nat Williams is Southern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.