Illinois AISWCD folks in front of national conference stage, in deep blues.

The AISWCD and local soil & water conservation districts were represented at February’s National Association of Conservation Districts conference in San Diego. (From left) Dr. Michael Woods, Rudy & Mara Rice, Steve & Judy Stierwalt, Michelle Piller, Tom & Judy Beyers, Steve Warmowski (and not pictured Bethany Ingram).

Leaders from soil and water conservation districts from around the country gathered in San Diego February 10-14, 2024 for the National Association of Conservation Districts 78th Annual Meeting.

“Getting together with people from all over the US, it broadens your horizons on what the conservation issues are,” said Steve Stierwalt, immediate past president of the Association of Illinois Soil & Water Conservation Districts. “These kinds of meetings are an opportunity to see what’s going on in other places, their concerns, how they relate to ours, and how we can work together to help solve them.”

One of the solutions that Stierwalt helped bring about with fellow farmers from the Champaign County Soil & Water Conservation District is the STAR initiative. Saving Tomorrow’s Agriculture Resources has expanded state wide, and is being implemented nation wide.

STAR hosted a booth at the national conference for the first time in San Diego. “It was interesting to see the range of people stopping by, what their interests were,” Stierwalt said. “I was very pleased with STAR’s reception and the interest there. It was exciting.

“It still seems unreal. This isn’t something we really dreamt – that we would go national – by any means. What’s even more fulfilling is people asking about STAR. We haven’t had time much to go out and drum up business, people are coming to us. That’s gratifying.”

Steve Stierwalt (at left) stands in front of booth.

Steve Stierwalt of the Champaign County Soil and Water Conservation District got to see the Illinois STAR program he helped create, now go national, with a booth at the National Association of Conservation Districts conference in San Diego.

Current AISWCD President Tom Beyers, of the Marion County Soil & Water Conservation District, said these conferences are good to attend and see the diverse ways of implementing  conservation practices across the nation.

Beyers said he’s come to about 10 conferences, and beyond working on resolutions, talking about regulations and associated lobbying efforts, it’s a great place to develop friendships and meet interesting people – including one Ohio farmer in his 90s who’s been attending these national meetings for 60 years or more. “That shows the dedication of some of these folks to conservation on their farms,” Beyers said.

One item from the trade show that particularly caught his eye was a soil probe developed by Teralytic. The device gives real-time readings of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and carbon. Beyers said he asked Dr. Michael Woods, executive director of the AISWCD, to look into getting probes which can be used by soil & water conservation districts around the state.

And one thing Beyers wished for was a similar probe for water. “I want the same thing that’ll test the water coming off my field,” he said, to measure the benefits provided by no-till and cover crops practices. “I can see the difference in the color of the water, the turbidity of the water. But that’s just looking. That’s not measuring.”

The new instrument also caught the eye of Bethany Ingram, administrative resource conservationist and coordinator for the Jackson County Soil & Water Conservation District. She hopes her county is the first to get to use the new tool for conservation.

This conference was a first for Ingram, who said it not only gave her the opportunity to find out about the latest and greatest in the conservation world, but also meet lots of people. “I made some life-long connections,” she said, including an invitation to go to North Dakota to check out how they implement conservation practices.

Ingram is a co-chair of the Illinois Soil & Water Conservation District Employee Association, and she was approached to see if she had interest in serving as a North Central representative on the national association. She said she’s already talked to her local compatriots as she explores the opportunity.

Also attending the conference was Michelle Piller of Edwards County SWCD and Rudy Rice of Perry County SWCD, who also serves as AISWCD Area IV Vice President and last president of NACD.

Piller said when she was waiting for her flight home, her head was swimming with new possibilities, programs, and partnerships. “I took out a piece of paper and started writing about all the things I wanted to share with my board.” Her county has been awarded a technical assistance grant from NACD, and she picked up tips on how to fulfill grant requirements. She also was excited about a partnership available from Pheasants Forever, which supplies a John Deere tractor and specialty seed mix.

Rice said he was inspired by the story of NACD’s Friends of Conservation Award winner Jon Jackson of Comfort Farms in Milledgeville, Georgia. After completing six deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, the fourth-generation farmer created the 38-acre regenerative farm that helps veterans in crisis. 

Michael Woods of the AISWCD said the conference is an opportunity to network, get insights into new practices, and to elevate the story of Illinois’ conservation efforts. He said the state’s local soil & water conservation districts are doing so many things right, and he heard messages from others to validate that effort with ideas on how to reframe successes for public messaging.

Woods also took to heart a message from Erik Wahl, a graffiti artist and author who spoke at the convention on ways to innovate and be creative.

“Sometimes it’s hard to live up to inspiration. But we always must try, through perspiration.” 

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