Success Story Archive
Illinois NRCS Archive Success
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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
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.
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
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.
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
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."
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
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
"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
"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."