BROADLANDS – Kevin Donoho looked at Joe Rothermel's field, full of tiny corn plants, and he liked what he saw.
"See where the residue's all bunched up," said Donoho, district conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service. "There's an earthworm hole under every one of those piles. It's amazing how big the piles are. The worms are doing the tillage for us in this field. "
Rothermel's one of a handful of farmers in Champaign County who don't till corn- fields before they plant a crop, so debris from last year's soybean crop and even the previous year's corn crop still lies on the ground.
"We're 100 percent no-till," he said. "My father started it in 1992 because he liked the idea of conservation tillage and because he farmed by himself and it was easier."
Today only about 3 percent of the farmers in the county no-till corn, but about 32 percent plant beans in last year's cornfields without plowing the ground first.
Donoho's job this spring is to make sure farmers follow the conservation contracts they make with the government to keep soil in place on fields, especially sloping fields where erosion is a real problem.
Farmers have a number of options to reduce erosion, Donoho helps them pick the right ones, and he's also the enforcer because the government pays farmers to comply with conservation programs. If they don't live up to their side of the bargain, penalties can be very costly.
Donoho said Champaign County farmers pay attention to business: No penalties have been assessed in the year since he came to the county.
"Compliance started as a result of the 1985 farm bill and it hasn't gone away," Donoho said. "Producers are held accountable for following a conservation plan, and we do random status reviews to verify two things, that erodible land has a plan and it's being followed and that wetlands aren't being converted to production."
Donoho said much of Champaign County is naturally swampy and most fields have been tiled for years to channel away standing water into ditch banks. But he said it can be tempting to add tiles to increase crop space.
"It's OK to maintain tile you already have, but if you put tile where it's not or make it deeper or bigger in any areas designated wetlands, that's a problem," he said.
Donoho said most farmers know their land well and don't violate rules. "But problems can occur when land changes hands, the new owner doesn't know what areas have what designations and he starts doing things to his fields," he said.
He said highly erodible land isn't as common in flat Champaign County as wetlands – about 90 percent of the county's farmers have some wetland areas.
"Most people know you don't mess in the wetlands, because if you're found in violation, to regain eligibility for farm program benefits, you have to restore the area and that's a big deal," Donoho said. "Your farm program benefits are at stake. You can get anything from a small penalty to loss of all payments if you violate the rules."
Most farmers get thousands of dollars a year from the government, some from crop subsidies and some for complying with conservation programs. Donoho said erosion control plans can specify tillage practices and even which crops farmers plant in what fields.
"We're keeping streams and rivers clean," he said. "These plans are farmers' friends because they keep soil in place, they save money in fuel and they're good for moisture conservation."
Rothermel worked in the aviation industry in California before he came back to Broadlands in 1995 to take over his father's farming operation – and his no-till practices.
"I can't get deep tillage to pay," he said of one advantage of the system. "No-till reduces input costs. It's easier for beans because they're planted later and the ground is warmer."
He plants the usual rotation, corn and beans, but he rotates about 40 acres of wheat around his 860-acre operation so wheat is in every field every four or five years.
"Wheat residue is really heavy," Rothermel said.
He advised farmers who want to try no-till to have a positive attitude and to expect a trial-and-error period before they get the system fine-tuned.
"We made a lot of changes," he said.
But there are other payoffs besides environmental benefits. Rothermel's corn yields in a good year exceed 200 bushels per acre, and bean yields regularly come out of the hopper at 60 or more bushels per acre.