Acre by acre, year by year the Forest Preserve District is slowly converting the farmland it owns into restored prairies, savannas, wetlands and other native habitats.
The agricultural acreage was obtained incidentally during the District’s land acquisition campaigns and is still being farmed through an agricultural lease program as an interim measure before restoration or development can occur.
But this year, changes were recommended by an ad hoc farm committee made up of Forest Preserve and Will County Farm Bureau staff, and Forest Preserve Commissioner Judy Ogalla. The changes were incorporated into the farm lease bid documents approved in August and they will take effect in 2019.
No-till and strip-till methods adopted
The biggest change is the inclusion of additional erosion prevention measures, said Andrew Hawkins, director of planning and development for the District.
For instance, hilly, highly erodible land at Fiddyment Creek Preserve in Homer Glen will require the installation of off-season cover crops, terraces and risers, which funnel runoff water underground. And contour farming practices will be used to install seed. Because of the advanced soil erosion measures required for this site, the farm lease is six years.
“The farmer will be following the contours of the land, so the water runoff will be slowed by each row of plants,” Hawkins said. "The point is to safely get the water in higher ends of the watershed down into the stream itself or to a discharge point with the least amount of velocity.”
Also in 2019, the District is requiring all of its agricultural acreage to be planted using strip-till or no-till farming techniques.
“Strip till is exactly what it sounds like,” Hawkins explained. “Using one piece of equipment, a farmer is able to till strips of soil just wide enough for the seeds to be planted at the same time the tilling is taking place. No till is where farmers go through the stubble from the year before and directly place seed into the ground. Strip till and no till are two proven best management practices used in agriculture to help keep soil in place on a large open farm field.”
Lease lengths staggered
Another change in the program involved adjustments to lease lengths to better reflect how much work it will take for farmers to incorporate advanced erosion prevention measures at some sites.
Also, the leases have been staggered so eventually, only around one-third of the farmland under the District’s control will be bid each year, which will make it easier for the District to rebid any contract that is canceled. In the past, all leases were set at three years, but now the lease lengths will range from 2-6 years and the program will be more flexible.
“As a result of more frequent bidding, the program will more closely mirror the economy at any given time,” Hawkins said.
The District acquired farmland during two large referendum-funded acquisition programs running from the 1990s through 2012. Some farmers wouldn’t part with sensitive natural areas without selling their entire farms, so the District acquired some agricultural land in the process of expanding preserves and greenways or protecting important habitat.
Currently, 3,250, or 15 percent, of the Forest Preserve’s almost 22,000 acres are in the farm lease program, but that number is shrinking every year as more land is restored with native plant species or developed with picnic shelters, trails and other amenities. Farming continues on the remainder to keep the land as free of invasive species as possible.
“If we left the land fallow, it would be completely taken over by woody vegetation, so farming is a form of weed control,” Hawkins said.
Long-term goal is restoration
Allowing the land to be farmed is the short-term plan, said Ralph Schultz, the Forest Preserve’s chief operating officer. In the long term, the parcels will all be restored or developed. But it’s not possible to restore all of the agricultural land at once because it’s expensive with the average cost being around $10,000 an acre, he explained. But creative measures have helped supply money for the agricultural land restoration efforts.
Grants have been obtained and partnerships formed with a wide variety of agencies to help pay for and maintain the restoration work. Also, revenue generated by the farm leases is recycled back into the land restoration program. The 2019 leases will bring in more than $600,000 in revenue, which supplements the District’s natural resource management program.
The restoration effort at Hadley Valley Preserve in New Lenox and Homer townships is a good example of how the District restores farmland to its original state with the help of funding from other agencies.
For instance, restoring 636 acres at Hadley Valley Preserve – one of the largest restoration efforts ever undertaken by the Forest Preserve – cost $15,000 an acre. But funding for the project included $2 million from the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority and $3.6 million form the O’Hare Modernization Mitigation Account Grant.
After seven years of work, the former farm fields at Hadley Valley are an ecologically diverse habitat that includes upland prairie, savanna and wetlands. Also, around 1.5 miles of the creek were restored to its original, meandering course. A 5-mile multiuse trail and three access areas were created with help from the City of Joliet, Illinois Department of Natural Resources and local developers.
Similar conversion efforts are underway now at Prairie Bluff Preserve in Crest Hill and Kankakee Sands Preserve in Custer Township.
The 2019 agricultural program changes are designed to keep this conversion process going and make sure that precious topsoil is protected from erosion, free of invasive species and ready for restoration as the years go on, Schultz said.
“We want to serve as a model for conservation techniques that include soil health and waterway protection,” he said. “Ultimately, the goal is to restore around 50 acres a year, so in 30 years we will have restored everything.”
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