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Cover crops and conservation tillage could reduce likelihood of highway dust storms

Pop-up dust storms such as the May 1 event that resulted in the loss of seven lives on an Illinois interstate could eventually be curtailed if more agricultural producers take advantage of government-funded programs that help defray the costs associated with adopting sustainable conservation agriculture practices on their farms.

This is the conclusion of many agricultural conservation proponents including Pete Fandel, professor of agriculture at Illinois Central College and a cover crop specialist with the Illinois Sustainable Agriculture Partnership (ISAP). While the adoption of cover crops-- defined as an overwintering crop raised for the protection and enrichment of the soil-- and other agricultural conservation practices by farmers will not completely eliminate dust storms, widespread usage of sustainable conservation practices by farmers could reduce the chances of another deadly dust storm occurring, according to Fandel.

Fandel, who himself is a farmer in Woodford County, is cautioning agricultural producers that failure to take up these conservation practices on a voluntary basis could result in government regulations mandating their usage.

I-55 dust storm rare, but not unprecedented

Dust storms such as the one that occurred May 1 on Interstate 55 near the Sangamon and Montgomery County lines are rare in respect of the number of fatalities (seven), injuries (37) and amount of vehicles (72) involved in the ensuing pileup, which occurred due to obstructed vision caused by the blowing dust. The National Weather Service (NWS) laid a portion of the blame at the feet of farmers, stating “the dust originated from freshly tilled and planted farm fields, and was kicked up by wind gusts of 35 to 45 miles per hour” with winds topping out at 54 miles per hour.

But such dust storms are, in reality, not rare, especially in western and plains states where land is more vast and winds typically more prevalent. In Illinois, two people were killed on May 17, 2017 when 40-50 mph winds closed I-72 from Jacksonville to Springfield, and I-55 from McLean to Bloomington. In 1990, I-57 was closed from Arcola to Mattoon due to blowing dust; two injuries were reported. Similarly, a dust storm on I-57 from central Illinois to the Chicago area led to an accident involving nine cars and two semi trailers, according to the NWS.

Farmers, environment benefit from conservation practices

Benefits to farmers who plant overwintering cover crops such as cereal rye or rapeseed include building soil organic matter, reducing erosion, holding nutrients such as fertilizers in place and saving them for the next year’s crop and, perhaps most importantly, reducing nitrate and phosphorus losses into nearby waterways. Cover crops also can improve existing crop residues to easily meet the nutritional needs of livestock.

So what are the factors keeping many farmers from utilizing cover crops? It all comes down to their cost outlay. In a time of higher input costs-- think post-Russian invasion of Ukraine fertilizer

prices-- for farmers, the costs associated with purchasing, planting, managing and terminating a cover crop can be the difference between annual net loss or profit for many farmers.

However, opportunities are increasing for farmers to turn their cover crop commitment into a revenue-producing crop. Research is being done at both Illinois State University and Western Illinois University to refine the production of pennycress-- a highly oleic oilseed crop with renewable energy potential-- and bring it to market with the help of start-up companies such as CoverCress, located in St. Louis and with ties to former research scientists with the USDA Peoria Ag Lab.

Another erosion and dust-reducing conservation practice farmers are now being paid for involves reducing the amount of tillage, or the turning of the earth in preparation for planting. “There are many reasons why we do tillage, but obviously once you till the soil disrupt the surface of the soil and the small particles, if we get too dry or windy, can be moved to a different location,” said Fandel.

“There are a lot of ways we can reduce that. We can do reduced tillage which results in more of the previous year’s crop residue remaining on the soil surface, which helps protect some of that soil. The other option is pure no-till, where you don’t do any tillage until you plant. However, it’s a little bit difficult to do for some farmers in certain locations,” he added.

Carbon markets pay farmers for no-till, cover crops

While the conservation benefits from cover crops and reduced tillage have been entrenched for years, a new and lucrative benefit for farmers willing to commit to verifiable conservation practices on their farms is coming from the burgeoning carbon sequestration market.

“Major companies and corporations are now basically paying farmers who use cover crops. Essentially, when you are growing a crop on your field 11 or 12 months out of a year you are sequestering carbon in the soil and generating carbon credits,” Fandel explained. “A company or corporation that is trying to become carbon neutral can now buy these carbon credits from farmers who are storing carbon.”

Companies now offering carbon capture contracts to Illinois farmers include PepsiCo and ADM. One carbon-buying company, Indigo, recently sold hundreds of farmer-produced credits for $27 apiece to buyers such as JPMorgan Chase, Shopify and North Face that are looking to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

Several government-funded programs already exist under the auspices of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service that will partially cover the costs of installing and maintaining conservation practices. The programs, EQIP, CRP and others, are funded through the federal farm bill’s conservation title.

“Whether it is cover crops or reduced till or no-till you are willing to do, there are many different programs available,” Fandel said, adding that farmers can inquire about these programs at their county USDA Farm Service Agency offices.

“Anything you can do to leave more residue or vegetation on the surface is going to reduce erosion from water or wind, so utilizing any of these practices is going to help alleviate the issue of soil erosion.”

Federal mandate on the horizon?

Could federal regulations soon be coming that will mandate farmers usage of conservation practices such as cover crops and reduced tillage? Fandel envisions a day when this could occur in Illinois, even without the increased scrutiny on agricultural practices in the aftermath of the May 1 tragedy on I-55.

“We have the hypoxia situation in the Gulf of Mexico and issues like this (dust storm) that happen infrequently, and we have the current administration that is very environmentally-friendly. And if you look at other parts of the country there have been some laws that have been passed that point to the fact there could be some potential legislation or some ruling that would mandate or encourage more farmers to undertake more of these practices than we are seeing,” said Fandel.

More information on cover crops and other sustainable farm conservation practices can be found at the ISAP website: www.ilsustainableag.org.

Tim Alexander is a correspondent for WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.