Opinion: Sustainable agriculture is key to a healthy future.

In the 1980s, my dad, JR, envisioned a permaculture-based perennial farm on his family’s land in Sheldon. His forward-thinking spirit built upon his father’s implementation of holistic farm management throughout my dad’s childhood, and a legacy of five prior generations of Zumwalt farmers in this region. However, in the 1980s the organic market was still in its infancy, and industrial agriculture was grasping an increasingly strong hold on the region, making the realization of my dad’s vision a nearly insurmountable task.

My dad was raised laying drainage tile, collecting chicken eggs and driving tractors when his feet could barely reach the pedals. He would tell me stories about growing up rafting down the creek on a sheep water tank in the summer and skating on its thin ice in the winter.

But another memory also stood out: the potent smell of chemicals in the creek. “Every May, it was terrible,” he said. Even in the 1960s, the health impacts of chemical agriculture on farming communities were undeniable.

My dad majored in horticulture in college, determined to “save the family farm from the chemical onslaught.” He returned to the farm after graduation and started growing hay as a transition crop from conventional to organic farming. He called upon his dad to resist chemical monocrop agriculture in business plans and heart-wrenching letters: “I desperately need a commitment from you. It’s now or never,” one yellowed paper read. “Being a hay man at the track isn’t my true calling. Please dad, is raising corn and beans really that great for you? I love you,” he ended the letter.

Today, we see that future my dad warned of and worried about long ago. Microbial life of the soil has plummeted, and the local community has shrunk with it. A single convenience store remains, where 47 businesses once thrived when my dad was growing up.

Farming has and will always evolve with new technology, scientific findings and changing socioeconomic conditions. But today, farmers feel stuck in a system where they too often need to choose between their bottom line and the environment. That is not and cannot be the case anymore. Farmers want to be part of the solution, but need the tools and resources to take those critical steps forward. Economic and environmental prosperity must go hand in hand.

At Zumwalt Acres, the farming community in northeastern Illinois I co-founded with my twin sister on our family’s farm, we demonstrate regenerative farming and soil health practices. Although my dad didn’t actualize his dreams when he was our age now, he planted the seeds for what we have built together. Farming can, and must, be at the forefront of creating a more resilient, healthy and just environment.

Illinois now has tools that prove agriculture can improve water quality and soil health, rather than degrade it, when managed with care. The Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy is a key step forward: giving farmers and rural communities the tools and support they need to take care of their land and waterways that are essential to our future, and, in the process, becoming the leaders necessary for a healthier environment for us all.

Farmers should not feel they face a choice of economics versus the environment. The Healthy Soils and Watersheds Initiative gives farmers the confidence to make choices that prioritize soil health and water quality right along with crop yields and cost reductions.

I urge the legislature to support a real investment in the Illinois Partners for Nutrient Loss Reduction Act. We must act now to give farmers today what they need to save our rural communities and protect our soils and water.

• Gavi Welbel is co-founder of Zumwalt Acres in Sheldon, Illinois. Zumwalt Acres is located on unceded homelands of Kickapoo, Peoria, Kaskaskia, Potawatomi, Myaamia and Ohéthi akówi peoples.