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Planting Seeds in Mercer County

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ace camp class

Earth Team Volunteers make ACE Camp a huge success!

Let’s send a shout out to folks in Mercer County, Illinois. “Thank You!” What are we thanking them for? For making a difference. They joined forces to plant seeds of conservation, good stewardship, and responsible citizenship into 250 2nd graders. And they do it every year. No doubt Mercer County will be impacted, but so will the State of Illinois or wherever these 2nd graders eventually end up.

What they’ve created is a special one-day “ACE Camp” event. ACE stands for Agriculture, Conservation, and Environment.  ACE Camp started in 1996 as a joint effort between the Mercer County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), the Illinois Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and the Mercer County Farm Bureau Ag in the classroom committee. In 1996, the Mercer County SWCD submitted a grant application to the Association of Illinois SWCDs (AISWCD) for $500 in “seed money” to get things kicked off. Pioneer Hybrids partnered with the AISWCD to offer these dollars.  According to Jason Hessman, NRCS Soil Conservationist, “That’s how this whole project got off the ground.  Since then, the SWCD and Farm Bureau have funded this venture and it’s really become a fun local event everyone looks forward to.”

class at ace camp

This year’s 2016 ACE Camp marks the 20th anniversary for the event. Every May, around 250 2nd graders gather at the Mercer County Fairgrounds.  The partners create 12 to 14 stations that students rotate throughout the day.  NRCS Earth Team volunteers are critical to the entire event and they support the event in many ways.

Some volunteers present station topics, such as a streambank erosion model, fisheries habitats, recycling, tree planting, and farm animals.  Other volunteers work to cook and serve food to camp participants and lead student groups from station to station. Many volunteers also serve on the ACE Camp Planning Committee, and help set up, tear down, and evaluate each year’s camp.  Annually, the number of volunteers ranges from 30-40. “Most of these are repeat volunteers, some of whom have been “on-board” with the camp since 1996,” Hessman adds.

Hessman points out something unique about this project is that it has also served as an outreach opportunity for both NRCS and the District.  Over the years, many of the parents that attend and chaperone students during the camp have later come to the NRCS/SWCD office, seeking technical assistance on natural resource issues that they may have on their property.

“The camp is planting seeds of stewardship into thousands of children who may grow up to be teachers, local leaders, landowners, and community decision-makers. At the same time, we’re raising awareness within these children’s families. It’s something we can all feel good about because we’re making a difference,” Hessman said.


If you would like to find out more, visit the webpage Illinois NRCS Earth Team.