Before his farming days, Cliff McConville worked in the Loop downtown for years, commuting to an array of jobs in the insurance industry from his home in Barrington Hills.
In 2011, McConville transferred to a remote job, and with an extra two and a half hours or so on his hands, he turned to raising chickens and a handful of beef cows on his property’s 8 acres.
McConville, who spent his childhood in Mount Prospect before heading to Austin, Texas, for high school and college, had always wanted a farm and had become interested in the idea of regenerative agriculture through books and documentaries.
The farming and grazing practice of regenerative agriculture, heralded by environmentalists as a major solution to climate change and water issues, is a conservation alternative to conventional farming that focuses on rebuilding soil health and biodiversity.
With high demand for sustainably raised, grass-fed cows, McConville’s business took off. Today, alongside a 400-acre operation in Wisconsin, he runs 150 acres of pastureland within the Brunner Family Forest Preserve through a long-term lease with the Kane County Forest Preserve District.
Although county forest preserve and conservation districts are charged with restoring land to the natural prairie and woodland of Illinois, it’s a slow and costly process. As a result, large swaths of district land often are leased out to farmers such as McConville while awaiting restoration.
Agricultural ecologists at the districts have said there’s a way to get a head start on restoring the land through regenerative practices. That’s because while conventional farming can deplete soil health by annually exposing it to the elements, strategies such as rotationally grazing animals and keeping a crop in the soil year-round builds up the organic matter in the soil.
“Our soils have been totally depleted by plowing. With annual cropping every year, you totally destroy the soil. All those organisms that are working together underneath the soil, if you flip that over and expose them, they all die,” McConville said. “How we look at it, we’ve got to have a live root in that soil that holds it in place year-round so it doesn’t go away in the wind or the rain, and then you run animals over it.”
By having cows, pigs and chickens graze, much the way buffalo herds have done naturally for thousands of years – “they eat it down, they poop on it, they trample it” – food is created for all the important organisms that live in the soil, McConville said.
Since beginning sampling in 2016, the farmer said he’s been able to double the percentage of organic matter in his soils.
“That whole rotational grazing that we do not only builds up the soil, but it also sequesters carbon from the atmosphere,” he said. “It puts the carbon back in the soil, which is the exact opposite of when you’re doing annual tillage with planting corn or soybeans, where you’re releasing the carbon.”
It’s this benefit of carbon sequestration that gives regenerative farming its climate change-fighting status. For some ecologists, farmers are just a few transitions away from making a huge difference.
“I think this is the answer to climate change,” said Benjamin Haberthur, executive director of the Kane County Forest Preserve District. “There’s so many people who are like, ‘You know, if we just tweak this a little bit, you guys could be sucking carbon out of the atmosphere.’ We’re not talking about some sci-fi solution of building some giant, atmospheric exchanger, we’re just tweaking the farm program.”
Haberthur said he envisions a future where you can drive across northern Illinois in the fall, and rather than seeing tilled up, “scarred landscape,” you see crops like a winter wheat or a cereal rye that are actively bringing carbon out of the air and into the soil.
Haberthur recently was hired for his position after previously serving as the district’s restoration ecologist and later the director of natural resource management. One of his major priorities is working with the district’s farmers to move toward more environmentally friendly practices.
About 26% of the forest preserve land is currently farmland. Those acres are leased out to farmers on an annual basis until the land can be restored, which costs about $2,000 an acre.
“We’re pulling land out of agriculture and putting it into natural areas at the rate of about 115 to 200 acres per year. But we’re at 40 to 60 years at that rate,” he said. “We’ve got to find a way to run our farmlands as a proxy for nature.”
It’s a similar story in McHenry County, where agricultural ecologist Brenna Ness said 7,000 acres of farmland make up 25% of the conservation district’s total acreage.
“We have a pretty significant amount of farmland that really functions as a management strategy for us and a source of revenue. While we’re restoring what we can, we have limited funds for restoration and management,” Ness said. “We have to be strategic, but we are every year restoring farmland to either prairie or woodland.”
While farmland awaits restoration due to limited manpower and funding, Ness said the district works closely with farmers to encourage regenerative practices such as grazing and using cover crops – a policy that has developed relatively recently over the past decade.
Last year, the district rolled out a new conservation-based agricultural lease that set stricter requirements for tillage and leaving crop residue. The lease also requires the use of cover crops each year and, in exchange, it offers farmers a longer lease and the opportunity to negotiate a lower rent to cover the cost of the additional crops.
The district also began working with farmers to graze cattle and goats as a grassland and prairie management practice about five years ago. As of December 2021, bison also have joined those ranks.
“The bison is obviously very exciting because it is a native species that naturally evolved with prairie ecosystems,” Ness said. “We’re working with tenants who are raising these animals as livestock, but for us, the benefit is much greater. We see the bison and the cattle and the goats as a grassland management tool. They are enhancing soil health and fertility, improving carbon sequestration and helping us manage this habitat for grassland birds and other wildlife.”
Ness added that for the conservation district, regenerative soil practices have an end goal of supporting wildlife and insect populations. For restoration and natural resource management to be successful, the district needs to foster healthy and diverse habitats – all of which is dependent on the health of the soil.
“Our plant health depends on the nutrients and microbial activity and the insects in the soil. As the agricultural ecologist, I can look at our farmland soils and see which is healthy and which is not, and you’re just going to have a really uphill battle if you’re starting with soil that’s devoid of life when you’re trying to restore biodiversity to that land,” she said. “Everything that grows from that soil and supports the wildlife depends on a rich, healthy soil with organic matter.”
• Jenny Whidden is a climate change and environment writer working with the Daily Herald through a partnership with Report For America supported by The Nature Conservancy. To help support her work with a tax-deductible donation, see dailyherald.com/rfa.