MATTOON — The soil has changed since 80-year-old Evelyn Winslow was a little girl.
“I could go out to the field and that dirt was coal black and would crumble in my hand,” the rural Hindsboro woman said. “Now you pick it up and look at it, and it’s like it’s dead.
“It doesn’t even smell like it used to.”
The eroding quality of farmland weighed on the minds of the 20 people who attended a daylong workshop on farmland conservation practices June 26 at the Lumpkin Family Center for Health Education near Mattoon.
Organized by American Farmland Trust and Prairie Rivers Network for women only — landowners and agriculture professionals alike — the session about caring for the land followed an informal, “learning circle” format developed by the Women, Food and Agriculture Network based in Ames, Iowa.
“More and more women are entering agriculture, and they want information,” said Ann Sorensen, the trust’s director of research. “They respond better to conversation than they do to talking heads, so the male-dominated system doesn’t serve women well.”
Naomi Warner, an 84-year-old widow from rural Neoga, said even though she grew up on a farm and farmed with her husband for many years, she feels like she knows nothing about the farm programs available. “I depend on my tenants and feel like I’m flying by the seat of my pants,” she said.
Conservationists also believe their message might get more traction among women.
Paige Buck, Illinois public affairs specialist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, said she thinks most women have a stronger love for the land than most men.
“My interest is to teach (farmers) about the importance of stewardship, and sometimes that’s a battle,” she said.
Other organizations represented included the Coles County Soil and Water Conservation District, Coles County Farm Bureau and Illinois Stewardship Alliance.
Sisters Barb Brehm, 68, and Bev Pryor, 64, of Arcola said their family has farmed since 1629, at one location or another, and must balance their desire to preserve the farmland they own, mainly in Douglas County, with the need to provide incomes for their sister and Pryor’s daughter, both of whom have disabilities.
Brehm said she maintains 15 acres of tall grass and 24 acres of trees, and Pryor said she maintains two bird habitats, but both women said their fields’ hedgerows have fallen victim to the drive toward greater production.
“I’ve watched ‘The Dust Bowl’ (TV miniseries), and my original college degree was in history, so that does scare me,” Pryor said. “We’re debating doing another CREP (Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program).”
The program is a federal, state and local partnership that allows frequently flooded cropland to be retired to reduce erosion loss of soil nutrients, improve water quality and create wildlife habitats.
Information was also provided on nine conservation programs offered by the USDA, including the Environmental Quality Incentives and Conservation Stewardship programs.
During a two-hour field tour, workshop participants visited the Douglas-Hart Nature Center in Mattoon to see a wetland before journeying close to the Douglas County line to see examples of a field border and a grass waterway, both of which slow down water running off a field and help keep topsoil from washing away.
Andy Brantner, the district conservationist with the Douglas County Soil and Water Conservation District who joined the group mid-tour, said the waterway is doing its job draining water from 600 to 800 acres of cropland even though its revamp was not completed until March.
“This waterway had been silted in with trees growing up in it and water running down both sides,” Brantner said. “It was way past its useful lifetime.”
A few hundred yards away, Winslow’s daughter, Connie Winslow, pointed out a field where the farmer had planted right up to road’s edge and sediment from the field had washed onto the blacktop.
“I don’t know why people do that,” she said. “Maybe they don’t want to mow.”
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