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Students Get a Hands-On Lesson in Stewardship

Approximately 1,175 third-graders got their hands dirty, planted soybeans, classified tree species, and identified wildlife at the annual Outdoor Stewardship Days on September 25th and 26th. The Lee and Ogle County Soil and Water Districts (SWCDs) hosted the outdoor classroom in Dixon's Lowell Park as a partnership venture with a variety of agencies, organizations, and individual volunteers. The goal was to bring a message of caring for the environment, maintaining natural resources, and having a good time in the great outdoors.

Over 25 stations were presented by a variety of volunteers and natural resource professionals from local SWCDs, USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), Cooperative Extension Service, and other organizations. Presenters gave demonstrations and led hands-on activities dealing with topics such as water quality, soil conservation, forestry, wildlife habitat, recycling, fisheries, and Native American history and artifacts.

"Our natural resources will soon be in the hands of today's young people," said NRCS State Conservationist Bill Gradle, "and I am proud of the efforts of Illinois' conservation partnerships to not only preserve our resources for future generations, but also to provide these students with the tools they need to be good stewards of the land themselves."

NRCS Soil Conservationist Joe Sullivan led the soils exploration. Sullivan pulled soil samples from increasing depths, pointing out the color, texture and composition of the different layers of soil. "Kids are fascinated to see what goes on under our feet. They are eager to touch the soil and make their own observations and formulate their own theories about why the soil changes at different depths and in different areas," remarked Sullivan.

Dan Pierce, NRCS District Conservationist for Ogle County taught a lesson on wildlife. Surrounded by mounted wild turkeys, coyotes, and other native Illinois wildlife, Pierce talked about habitat and demonstrated animal calls.

The Lee and Ogle County SWCDs have hosted the event in Dixon's Lowell Park since 1997. "Outdoor Stewardship Days brings in over 90% of the third grade students from Lee and Ogle Counties," said Brenda Merriman, Resource Conservationist from the Lee County SWCD. "The teachers look forward to this event every year because of its interactive nature and because the activities relate to their classroom lessons."

Funds for the event were provided by the Lee and Ogle County Offices of Solid Waste Management, Borg Warner of Dixon, and Pheasants Forever of Lee County.


Landowner Achieves Goals with NRCS Technical Assistance

Jack Robertson believes that people are the key to making conservation work. "I have seen firsthand that the NRCS relationship with local landowners is extremely important," said Robertson.

Enrolling 170 acres into a permanent easement required educated decisions with a long-term impact on the Cass County farm owned by Robertson and his business partners. He went to the Cass County NRCS service center to get the facts.

"NRCS was critical in the planning," explained Robertson. "Programs can be confusing, but NRCS District Conservationist Rhonda Holliday spent a lot of time, from start to finish, to help me learn about the program, my options, and the best way to achieve my objectives," he continued.

Robertson, a wildlife enthusiast and former board member of the National Wild Turkey Federation, had a goal of drawing additional wildlife to the land while maintaining and enhancing the animal life that was previously there.

With CREP, Robertson planted filter strips, native grasses, and food plots. The result was year-round nesting habitat, cover, and a food source for wild turkey, deer, quail, and pheasants. "I saw an increase in game almost immediately," said Robertson, "and the benefits of the filter strip bring us closer to the ultimate goal of cleaner water."

"NRCS technical specialists are working toward the same goal as I. We're on the same page. NRCS showed me what I could do and how to do it," said Robertson.


Wetland Restoration-Letting the Land Do What It Does Best

Dan Keith and Jeff Van Drunen had a goal of restoring a beautiful and unique part of the landscape by enrolling 60 acres along the Kankakee River into the CREP program. "We really did not have a clue how to begin the project," explained Keith, "so we contacted the CREP Partnership. NRCS District Conservationist Bob Gotkowski brought everybody together and started the process."

A Cultural Resources Assessment by NRCS Archaeologist Sharon Santure identified signs of Mississippian and early to mid-archaic habitation. "I knew artifact hunters had found relics here for years," said Keith. "By, meeting with Sharon, I learned more about the land's rich historical significance."

Working with NRCS, Keith and Van Drunen developed a conservation plan to protect areas of archaeological significance while restoring the marshy, rarely productive cropland to its original wetland state. Gotkowski provided methods to establish native vegetation on the former cropland, an area often flooded and difficult to work. His technical recommendations also included suitable plants, soil interpretations, and other science-based options.

The restored wetland features nesting islands for birds, small earthen dams to control erosion, wildlife food plots, native plants, and tree plantings, which all contribute to the large-scale benefits of reduced flooding, sediment control, and clean water.

"Working with NRCS is a smooth process," Keith noted. "The communication was great, and Bob answered all our questions. It's been an awesome education."

"We were able to let the land do what it does best. The unique quality of the area is unrivaled," said Keith, who produces a television fishing show, Midwest Outdoors, and has visited the world's most celebrated natural areas. However, Keith still ranks his home in Illinois first among these marvels, "It's one little place where things are right."


Partnership Provides Opportunities for the Homeless

The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) partnered with an impressive collaboration of public, private, urban and rural entities to launch Growing Home, Inc. Representatives from these groups joined high school students and homeless Chicagoans in LaSalle County on October 3 to launch the non-profit agriculture project designed to train and employ homeless and low-income people from the Chicago area.

More than 100 participants, including approximately 25 homeless Chicagoans and 60 students from Seneca High School, planted trees and shrubs around the periphery of the 10-acre site outside Marseilles, IL as an early step in establishing a certified organic farm. During a pork chop lunch provided by the Seneca High School FFA chapter, speakers discussed the future of the project and homeless participants shared their experiences and hopes for the future.

"I've been amazed at the outpouring of support for Growing Home's efforts to develop its rural site and future program," stated Les Brown, Interim Director and Board President of Growing Home. "Together, we can create a much needed resource for homeless and low-income persons."

David Carter participates in programs and services sponsored by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and Chicago homeless shelters in order to get his life back on track. "It's been one heck of an experience," said Carter as the day's activities wrapped up. "I come from a world of problems-drugs, jail. But, being here today is a breath of fresh air. The people working on this project are dealing with all kinds of issues," he continued.

The project was made possible through a collaboration of federal and local entities including NRCS, LaSalle County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), Seneca High School FFA, and the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. Other partners include the USDA-Urban Resources Partnership (URP), Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), USDA-Rural Development (RD), Cooperative Extension Service Master Gardeners, USDA-Farm Service Agency (FSA), LaSalle County Farm Bureau, Ottawa Wal-Mart, Asplundh Tree Service, Pony Express Horse Transportation, and Rental Pro's.

"We are happy and excited to work with Growing Home in the development of this unique and important initiative," said NRCS District Conservationist Paul Youngstrum, who contributed conservation planning for the project and helped bring Growing Home in contact with other contributing federal and local agencies. "NRCS and our partners have provided, and will continue to provide, technical assistance to Growing Home while helping bring together other resources and local institutions and community groups."

With funds from an URP grant, students and homeless participants together planted 660 native trees and shrubs around the periphery of the site, which will help block wind and drift of herbicides and pesticides from neighboring cropland.

"We have been mowing the site and will help prepare the land to begin planting the first crops next spring. Our students want to remain involved and look forward to learning about organic farming as well as homelessness, its causes, and solutions," commented Jeff Maierhofer, Seneca High School's FFA advisor.

On average, as many as 160,000 people become homeless each year in metro Chicago. "Homeless people can be found in both rural and urban areas," explained Brown. "Many homeless and low-income people are excluded from the employment market because they do not have the training, support, or access to existing jobs. People who have been out of work for long periods of time, or who have little or no employment experience, face a multitude of barriers as they try to enter or re-enter the work force."

Growing Home, Inc. acquired the LaSalle County land in 1999 through an application to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services after the federal weather station housed on the site was closed and the land was designated federal surplus property.

Growing Home, Inc., which also owns 1 acre on Chicago's near-west side near the ABLA Public Housing Project, will operate the LaSalle County farm as the rural site for a job creation, training, and placement program for homeless and low-income persons. Much of the produce grown on the farm will be supplied to Chicago food pantries and shelters.

The training program will be developed within the context of a non-profit business with a mission to grow, market and sell organic vegetables and value-added products to an array of outlets. Participants will learn every aspect of the business and thus gain a wide set of skills, which may be used to acquire jobs in the Chicago region.

"Another goal of the project," said Brown, "is to connect participants with the land and forge an understanding of the cycles of life and death and the analogies to be found with human existence. "Connecting with the soil and its life-giving properties is often a very positive spiritual growth experience," Brown continued.

"It's beautiful out here," remarked David Carter, "when you have some space around you, you can see some hope."

Carter said he plans to stay involved in the Growing Home project in the future. "I needed something different," he said. "Homelessness is in here," explained Carter pointing to his heart, "It begins with feeling lost, but that changes when you see that people care about what happens to you."