By Deana Stroisch
Cathy Stepp, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) new Region 5 administrator, visited two Kane County farms this week to get a firsthand look at how farmers help protect the environment.
Stepp spent more than three hours at the farms of Steve Pitstick and Chris and Eldon Gould – her first visit to an Illinois farm. Alec Messina, director of Illinois EPA; Raymond Poe, director of the Illinois Department of Agriculture; and 25 state and county Illinois Farm Bureau leaders also attended.
Stepp learned about the history of the farms, the challenges farmers face and different nutrient-management and conservation practices they voluntarily adopted. Stepp also started up a John Deere 9530 tractor, rode in a sprayer, toured a farrow-to-wean facility and held a baby pig.
During her visit, Stepp repeatedly emphasized the importance of building relationships. She also asked the group of farmers what worried them about dealing with federal agencies. Among the responses: Added costs of future regulations that result in no environmental benefit, jurisdictional questions between federal agencies and “environmental gotcha.”
“It’s our responsibility to make sure everyone who produces, whether it’s the ag sector or any other one, knows what the rules are upfront, that they understand what the expectations are, that we build a relationship so when there are questions, or worries, or troubles or struggles they can come to us without fear – and that’s a big thing,” Stepp said. “Sure, we’re going to have to regulate …. and enforce sometimes, but if we do a good job on the front end, then there’s no limit to the environmental successes that we can see on the ground in real life. That means working with people to help them comply.
“That’s really the culture I’m trying to bring to the region,” she said. “There’s no better way to do that then to get out here, put my feet on the ground and talk with producers and help understand what’s facing them today. There’s a lot of challenges for farmers.”
Appointed to the post in December, Stepp’s responsibilities as regional administrator include overseeing environmental protection efforts in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin, as well as 35 federally recognized tribal governments. She previously served as principal deputy regional administrator for Region 7, as secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources from 2011 to 2017 and as Wisconsin state senator from 2003 to 2007.
Pitstick farms with his two brothers, his son and his nephew. He explained to Stepp how farming practices have changed at his farm during the last 40 years. Changes in technology, he said, allowed him to plant some no-till corn for the first time this year, as well as more efficiently apply fertilizer and nitrogen.
He also explained how sensors on the planter can pick up the organic matter on the field.
“We’ve got high-resolution maps, which are much better than any other grid soil sampling that we’ve done previously because it covers the whole field,” Pitstick said. “The hope is that we can use this information going forward to make better nitrogen and fertility plans because we have this one kind of unknown piece of data. We keep unlocking doors and finding new things. It’s kind of fun.”
About 10 miles away, Gould raises several thousands of acres of grain – about 60 percent corn and 40 percent soybeans. He has a 700-sow farrow-to-wean operation. Gould explained how he handles and stores manure, why he plants cover crops and installed a grass waterway, among other things.
He also explained the evolution of tilling. He planted about 500 acres of no-till corn this year.
“I think this is more and more possible with the technology we have. There are certainly challenges,” he told Stepp. “The benefits are obvious – less trips, less fuel, less labor, less machinery. But it does rely on chemicals for weed control. And that’s becoming more and more of a problem. We’re having to get smart about controlling weeds.”
Stepp said she was impressed – but not surprised – by the different practices used by the Gould and Pitstick families. She called them “above and beyond” and “ahead of the times.”
“We in government could do well by listening and learning from them,” she said. “I’m going to help in whatever ways I can to spread the message about what’s really happening, what farmers are really talking about and how they’re trying to make ends meet and yet still doing the right thing by the environment.
“We can do both,” Stepp said. “We can have people make money and support a business and their family and still do the right thing by the environment. But we have to work together to do that.”
Content for this story was provided by FarmWeekNow.com.