SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — When others were wringing their hands over the tragic dust storm that led to the death of eight people driving along a Central Illinois highway, Richard “Dick” Lyons was well on the way to figuring out how he could help.
He combined his knowledge from 50 years of farming in south central Illinois, his passion for conservation practices and his abilities as a long-time educator in letters he wrote to legislators asking for them to pass bills he believes could help lessen the impact of future dust storms.
He asked for the passage of SB1701, which supports Soil and Water Conservation Districts in every county in Illinois and includes funding to encourage the adoption of cover crops and no-till/strip-till.
“I don’t know if it did any good, but to me conservation is a moral obligation,” he said.
It’s not the first time he has written to Illinois legislators about soil health. In 2021, he proposed legislators create a Soil Health Day encouraging farmers to follow basic soil health principles in Illinois, and this year the state celebrated Soil Health Week March 6-10.
A farmer asking lawmakers for more legislation around their own practices isn’t typical. Lyons said he believes voluntary programs don’t always work quickly enough, and incentives will get things moving.
He says instead of fighting against all legislation, it is better to be part of the planning.
“Be on the front end of it,” he says. “Make it something you would volunteer to do.”
He wants to be part of formulating any policy. That’s why he is active in many agricultural organizations including the Illinois Corn Growers Association, Illinois Stewardship Alliance, Illinois Farm Bureau, the American Farmland Trust and The Nature Conservancy.
“We’re at a crossroads,” he said. “There are all kinds of federal dollars in the Inflation Reduction Act earmarked for conservation. We’ve got to step up and take advantage of them. If we don’t do it in Illinois, somewhere else will.”
He encourages farmers to get their ideas out in public, test them, talk to others, reformulate, and put them into effect.
“Narrow yourself to a position you can live with,” he said.
Financial sustainability is vital, so he chooses farming practices on his land in Montgomery County with production in mind as well. His yields show these practices work for environmental and fiscal sustainability. His 10-year corn yield average is 261 bushels per acre and soybeans 80 bu./acre. Averages for the area are 201 bu./acre for corn and 60.4 for soybeans.
He has topped 300 bu./acre in corn in some fields and is aiming for 100 bu./acre for soybeans, he said.
To get those consistent high yields, Lyons researches ideas and attends field days.
“If you are at any kind of conservation or drainage event,
you are going to run across Dick,” says Eric Miller, a Piatt County farmer who is active in conservation research with the University of Illinois Urbana- Champaign and with the Illinois Nutrient Research and Education Council.
“He is a very goal-oriented person, which is a key to all of his successes and what he gets done,” Miller said.
Lyons used that attitude when he saw opportunities for farmers to get funding to plant cover crops through the Illinois Cover Crop Initiative. He contacted fellow farmers to tell them about the opportunity. Many more requests across the state were received than money available, but when the funding ran out, his Montgomery County was in the top five of all participants.
On his own farm, Lyons plants a two-year rotation of corn, cereal rye, soybeans and tillage radish/barley/rape/Austrian winter pea. His soil health practices include no-till/strip-till, biodiversity, and a living root throughout the year.
He couples this with managing nitrogen, potassium and potash on every acre while protecting streams and drainage ditches with filter strips, two-stage ditch designs and streambank stabilization.
Keeping the soil on the land by preventing erosion and keeping nitrogen and phosphorus out of the runoff and tile drainage is built into his cropping choices.
Most recently, Lyons was honored by the Illinois Corn Growers Association with the Mike Plumer Environmental Award for his commitment to healthy soils and water.
“Richard Lyons is a perfect example of why we give this award. He is doing everything right regarding conservation practices on his farm, and he’s willing to try something new and change or grow if he finds out there’s a practice that is better for his acres,” farmer and Illinois Corn past-president Marty Marr said when giving him the award.
Off the farm, Lyon’s is an associate director for the Montgomery County Soil and Water Conservation District, a member of the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy Working Policy Group, a director of the Illinois Association of Drainage Districts board, and a member of the University of Illinois’ Illinois Water Survey advisory committee. He was chairperson of the Lake Springfield Resource Planning Committee for 32 years.
Lyons takes pride in being “a registered lobbyist for the IADD in the Illinois State Legislature.” His interest in Lake Springfield grew in 1988 after $8 million had been spent on dredging the lake.
“Just one rain took the equivalent of $1 million in money spent removing the silt,” he said.
That was incentive enough for him to become part of that solution.
He was there for follow-up issues with atrazine, when chemical retailers also joined to be part of finding a solution everyone could live with. Likewise, when nitrate issues in the lake hit the headlines, he was among those working on solutions, including using nitrogen inhibitors in fields and working with urban counterparts.
For more than three decades when Lyons taught at Lincoln Land Community College in Springfield and Illinois State University in Normal, he kept farming. When he retired from teaching agriculture in college and university at age 56, he found a place for himself teaching custom applicators through MO-Ag Corporation, based in Missouri.
When he retired, he prayed about what he should do next. He heard a sermon that he and his wife agreed seemed directed to him. The priest said to use your passion and your skills to make a difference.
So, now at age 77, that’s what he continues to do.
“I have a great passion for things I do,” says Lyons, who teaches other interested farmers what he has learned.
His reaction to a tragedy like the dust storm is to write letters and teach practices that can make a difference.
“I’ve spent a lifetime trying to improve on what my great-grandfather, grandfather and my dad left me,” Lyons said. “Owning land is just a piece of paper. We are just caretakers of what is left to us.”