Jeff O’Connor, a farmer in Kankakee County, with the Illinois Soybean Association, and a board member of national STAR (Saving Tomorrow’s Agriculture Resources) presented during Soil Health Week’s The Art and Science of Soil Health Advocacy in Action Day Thursday March 7, 2024 at the Illinois State Capitol


The STAR rating system, although new to agriculture, is widely recognized by just about everyone. We’ve seen it used to rate hotels, to score athletes in high school as they go to college. We’ve used it for health services, in movies, restaurant food, or ride-sharing. So, we’re very familiar with the star system.

So why does STAR now find itself on the edge of agriculture, and looking in on the largest industry in Illinois and looking to play a meaningful role, typically dominated by conversations with bushels per acre and acres farmed? It’s because that system’s ease of use and very simple metrics backed by science can be used to gauge how well farmers are caring for the land.

As a farmer myself, rapidly approaching the beginning of my 37th crop, I’ve long shared with those I farm for and with how each conservation practice benefits the natural resources we work with to produce grain. Through relationships, I have built a trust with them that spans time – through good times and bad times.

What happens, though, when that relationship is ended? And in many cases, is taken over by a younger generation or new landowners. Well, I’ve been presenting STAR to landowners, old and new. That has allowed me to remove both the emotion and the relationship from my story of these are the best practices for the land.

Since 2018, I have used STAR to place an annual value that is recognized and comprehensive of the conservation practices I employ on each farm. STAR hopefully shows that stability over time and yearly almost always shows that I have, still, room for improvement. Of the many attributes of STAR, perhaps my favorite is its ability to transcend an often-heard phrase, and Director Costello just used it – Farmers are the best stewards of the land.

While this statement is absolutely true because we literally live and breathe our work every day. STAR now gives us a metric that says how well we can steward the land and how well we are stewarding the land. Going forward, my hope is that all of us, whether it’s a farmer or a politician, a concerned citizen, an investor, or a business owner, that increasingly we can ask how well farmers care for our land.

My own experiences have shown that I am better because the better that I care for the land as measured by STAR’s scores, the higher those other farm indicators, such as productivity, profitability, and soil and water management have been as well.

And when I thrive, my community thrives as well. Thank you.

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