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Farm profitability and environmental stewardship go hand in hand. At least thatís what Larry Kennel learned when push came to shove. The Low Point, Ill., farmer was asked about 11 years ago by a landlord to stop using farm chemicals on his fields or find new ground to farm. Today, Kennel considers that ultimatum good advice and has no regrets about making the switch to organic production.

"We learned we could be more profitable with crop rotations than by depending on expensive chemicals and fertilizers," says Kennel. "And at the same time, we can reduce erosion and protect the environment."

Kennel, who farms with his wife, Renae, brother, Tim, and son, Jeff, has adopted a four-year rotation and plants equal acres of corn, soybeans, oats and alfalfa. He uses no-till and strip-till conservation practices, and has also started using ridge-till to improve weed control.

So successful are Kennelís efforts to combine profitability with stewardship and personally encourage the adoption of conservation practices by others that he was presented with the Illinois Department of Agricultureís R.J. Vollmer Sustainable Ag Farmer Award of 2001, presented at the Illinois State Fair in August.

"The Sustainable Ag Farmer of the Year Award was created about six years ago as a way to encourage farmers to adopt sustainable practices," says Mike Rahe, one of the project coordinators with the Illinois Department of Agricultureís Bureau of Land and Water Resources, Springfield. "The award is named for the first winner of the award, the late R.J. Vollmer, whose innovative and sustainable practices brought him profitability."

In the case of Kennelís farm, soil tests indicate fertility levels on his farmland continue to rise, which he attributes in part to the use of alfalfa as green manure. His production of specialty corn and soybean crops is sold for a premium, which has also increased his net return.

"Our farmers consistently produce one of the most abundant and highest quality food supplies in the world," noted Illinois Agriculture Director Joe Hampton at the award presentation. "The environmental stewardship of responsible farmers like Larry Kennel will ensure rich, fertile soils remain productive for many generations."

Since making the switch to organic production, Kennel has become an outspoken advocate for sustainable agriculture. He serves on the Illinois Sustainable Ag Committee, which is dedicated to the development of production methods that increase both productivity and soil conservation. And the committee is just one component of the State of Illinoisí Conservation 2000 program created by the Sustainable Agriculture Act of 1990 to intensify research, demonstration and sustainable education efforts.

"Sustainable agriculture is an important component of Conservation 2000. As concern for the environment grows in both urban and rural areas, the sustainable ag movement will play a major role in efforts to maintain agricultural productivity and protect water quality," says Rahe.

Also part of Conservation 2000 is the Sustainable Agriculture Grant Program. Rahe says the grant portion was established so that researchers could develop and implement methods of production to protect natural resources without sacrificing profitability. Efforts range from finding innovative ways to keep soil erosion to tolerable limits to keeping pollutants out of surface and groundwater and developing natural pest control systems in crops.

"The program was created to spur greater innovation in production agriculture and I think we can say that is happening. We are helping to keep Illinois farmers on top of the latest production and conservation practices, and we are helping to make sure natural resources are sustained for future generations," says Rahe. "Since the grant program began, the quality and diversity of projects that have been funded are impressive. The grants have become very competitive and include on-farm and university research projects, and outreach and education efforts."

Since the program started and largely due to the tireless efforts of farmers such as Larry Kennel, Rahe expects that farmer interest in sustainable agriculture will continue to rise. State workshops, training, field days, videos and other activities are targeted at generating even more farmer interest, and each of the research projects underway has an outreach component.

"When you put all of these efforts together and see what the program is doing, you can see why we have a growing interest in sustainable agriculture," he says. AM

Barb Baylor Anderson is a freelance writer from Edwardsville, Ill., who covers a wide variety of ag issues.

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