On May 22 Illinois lawmakers sent legislation to Governor Quinn that establishes a new program to help farmers use crop fertilizers more effectively, which is expected to reduce nutrient losses and deliver significant improvements in water quality.

“We are challenged to improve both crop yields and water quality, and this will only happen through innovative nutrient research and on-farm practices aimed at accomplishing this mutual goal” said Jean Payne, President of the Illinois Fertilizer & Chemical Association. The legislation, House Bill 5539, creates a Nutrient Research and Education Council (NREC) which will utilize a fertilizer tonnage fee to establish and implement nutrient research, education and water quality programs.

The bill is part of the “Keep it for the Crop” initiative, which is supported by a coalition of agricultural and environmental organizations working to improve soil and water quality in Illinois. The program seeks to fund a vibrant nutrient research and education program and provide fertilizer suppliers and farmers with science-based recommendations and in-field practices to reduce nutrient losses and enhance nutrient efficiency through the adoption of the 4Rs of nutrient stewardship -- Right Source, Right Rate, Right Time, Right Place.  

According to clean water advocates, the new programs will address a widespread water pollution problem in Illinois – high levels of nutrients in rivers, lakes, and streams.  

“These new tools will help farmers make smart decisions about fertilizer application, and that will reduce pollution in our waterways,” said Jack Darin, director of the Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club. “We know farmers want to be part of the solution to water quality problems, and now they’ll have access to resources and technical expertise to do so."

Nutrient pollution occurs when excess nitrogen and phosphorus occur in bodies of water, which promotes excessive algae & plant growth leading to oxygen depletion, which can kill fish and other aquatic life. According to IEPA, both point sources and non-point sources contribute to the problem; this legislation fills a critical need for a program to specifically address how non-point sources including agricultural lands can reduce phosphorus and nitrogen losses. 

“It’s important to me that my children can someday become farmers, if that’s what they want to do,” said Gary Hudson, a family farmer from Hindsboro, Ill. “I’m always looking to improve the way I farm for now and for generations to come. I know that the choices I make and methodologies I choose are important for my family, and the families in Illinois and downstream. The 4R’s are definitely an important part of my continual improvements.”

The tonnage fee will result in a secure, long-term funding mechanism for the NREC. The fertilizer industry also supports the IL Dept of Agriculture’s fertilizer quality and safety programs through product registration and licensing fees that have always been part of The Fertilizer Act. The funds raised will eliminate the need for funds from the State General Revenue Fund to administer the Fertilizer Act.

“I’m pleased to see farmers, environmental advocates, and the fertilizer industry working together to find clean water solutions that work for Illinois,” said State Senator Michael Frerichs (D – Gifford) the Chair of the Senate Agriculture and Conservation Committee, and Senate sponsor of the legislation. “We need to protect the quality of our waters, and the Nutrient Research and Education Council will help farmers do that, and help them avoid unnecessary costs.”

“An active Nutrient Research and Education Council will be a real asset to Illinois’ overall efforts to clean up nutrient pollution,” said Dr. Cynthia Skrukrud, Clean Water Advocate for the Sierra Club, Illinois Chapter. “Efforts like these to help farmers implement solutions are an important part of an overall strategy that includes steps to also reduce nutrient pollution from all major sources, including sewage treatment plants, urban runoff, and agriculture.”