We Integrate Conservation With Agriculture


The Natural Land Institute Working Lands Initiative protects your donated farmland in perpetuity.

Through the Working Lands Initiative, NLI collaborates with our local farmers to determine the best farm management strategies that include both conservation and economic sustainability.

Click here to view the Working Lands Initiative brochure.





Executive Summary

The development of a newly envisioned working lands initiative by the Natural Land Institute (NLI), an Illinois conservation Land Trust, began simultaneously with the second phase of the Conservation Finance Research project, and was therefore ideal to be the subject of the research grant pilot project.  This research project has been funded through the Grand Victoria Foundation. NLI is a partner in this research project with The Delta Institute, Openlands, Jo Daviess Conservation Foundation, and the Illinois Environmental Coalition.

This pilot project is a process where the staff and board of the Natural Land Institute are exploring how using working lands to fund stewardship activities fits in with our mission and strategic plan, what the public perceptions are, how we can effectively manage our capacity, and how investment in agricultural lands might work. We explored the benefits and challenges of incorporating Working Lands into our Portfolio of fee land ownership, particularly how to fully engage biodiversity, clean water, healthy soils and carbon sequestration. We also hope that this work will provide a guiding structure for other conservation groups across the state.

NLI has two donated farms, one is 400 acres and the other is 63 acres.  This study focused primarily on the 400 acre Foss farm, 200 acres of which are in production.

NLI’s mission has been and continues to be to protect natural land, yet we wanted to explore the challenges of habitat fragmentation, invasive species and other stressors on a landscape scale using a systems approach to conservation. We are seeing how once unlikely partners are becoming allies.

Conservation working lands provide us an opportunity to shift from high input (fertilizers and pesticides) practices to practical agro-ecological conservation farming.  Examples are the use of cover crops that support the growth of soil fungi and reduce nutrient losses from the soil, and changes in tilling and other practices that minimize soil disturbance.  Healthy soils can naturally sequester large amounts of CO2, restore degraded soil biodiversity, and keep water in the soils reducing the loss of farm soils through erosion.  This also helps protect the water quality of our streams, and keeps the nutrients where they belong, in the soils.

All cropland/grazing management decisions NLI makes are with soil health, water quality and wildlife habitat in mind in addition to productivity. Ecologically managed farms can also provide buffers to help protect the biodiversity of high quality natural areas. With a suite of conservation agricultural practices setting the stage, some farms may eventually be returned to natural habitat entirely.  NLI met with other regional partners and agencies involved in agriculture and habitat initiatives. Our board and staff also attended roundtables, trainings and field days to become familiar with the concept of the farm as habitat. NLI prepared guiding principles for its Working Lands initiative, and developed a policy on farm management. Out of those principles and policy, a set of procedures and monitoring protocols to measure goals has been created to determine the success of our approach.

We worked with consultants to assist us in our explorations.  A soils consultant was engaged to work with both of our farmers on experimental acreage to use cover crops, practice no till drilling and use biologically based inputs to counteract the dip in production following the initial use of cover crops.  We did cost sharing with our farmers for the biological inputs, and we paid for the soil testing and the consultant fees.  The farmers paid for the cover crops. Results of their first year are contained in the report.

Working with our farmer at Foss Farm, and a conservation farm consultant to create a Whole Farm Conservation Plan based on the community relationship with the land, recovering the soil biota, and the exploration of new markets beyond the traditional corn and soybeans has also been a focus.

Additionally we engaged a consultant to assist us with assessing working lands as an investment strategy for conservation groups, and to look at what it would take to move from conventional agriculture to conservation farming, or even organic or regenerative agricultural practices.

Next steps for the next phase of the project include beginning the implementation process and preparing a template for other land trusts to follow. The implementation process includes establishing procedures, goals and monitoring objectives, a fair conservation lease, analyzing capacity, and developing long term budgets. Click here for more information: https://delta-institute.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Working-Lands-Management-Framework.pdf 

We are also asking, what is the messaging, marketing and framing that needs to occur; what are the market opportunities we can explore for alternatives to row crops and what resources will we need for farm management? How does conservation farming assist us with our preserve buffers and expanding our protected areas to create more of a systems approach to land protection? And finally do we need to develop a business plan to identify the way forward for a more strategic approach that includes identifying risks such as operational management, financial and human resource risks?

Working Lands Management Program

Guiding Principles

Our vision is to utilize a working lands program to financially support our growing land stewardship needs to achieve greater mission impact. This program diversifies our income base with a steady, reliable income stream.  NLI’s mission will also align as we incorporate natural ecosystems into productive agricultural land for clean water, healthy soils, biodiversity and heritage preservation to optimize the value of natural resources on productive lands. When feasible, our working lands may be restored to appropriate habitats.

These draft guiding principles for NLI’s Working Lands Program are formulated to guide the development of site stewardship goals, determine the best farm management strategies to include both conservation and economic sustainability, as well as highlighting our values in building long lasting relationships with the farmers and the local communities where they are located.

Principle 1.      Sustainable Land Stewardship. 

Principle 2.      Mutually Beneficial Lease Arrangements.

Principle 3.      Conservation and Restoration.

Principle 4.      Market and Revenue Economic Opportunities.

Working Lands Policy

NLI will implement farmland management standards that strive to protect and conserve the natural resources of the site. 

NLI will build equitable partnerships with the Lessee using their agricultural management capabilities and reducing their economic risk.

NLI may promote alternative agricultural production where appropriate.

NLI may reduce or terminate agricultural activities on working lands for ecosystem restoration.

Click here for additional information about the Working Lands Guiding Principles and Policies 

Donate Land to NLI to conserve and protect the soil and water quality, keep it in production, honor family history and steward the land in perpetuity.

The Benefits of Donating Working Lands To NLI
– Charitable deduction
– Protect land from development
– Enable land to be farmed by family members without worry
– Protect land from foreclosure or judgment by lender to heirs
– Ensure land is farmed sustainably for future generations
– Provide income to NLI to continue programs to protect natural resources
– Gift/sale to provide an income stream to you and save on income taxes

How To Donate Working Lands to NLI
– Make a gift in your Will or Trust
– Establish a Charitable Remainder Trust
– Transfer on Death Instrument
– Donate a percentage of a corporation, LLC or LLP, annually
– Gift/sale to provide an income stream
– Donate real estate – retain a life estate
– Donate real estate – retain income for life
– Gift a percentage of a Trust annually
– Gift a parcel of real estate periodically
– Establish a plan to make regular scheduled gifts to maximize charitable tax deduction Gift of an IRA, or dollar amount
– Gift of Appreciated Property

Call (815) 964-6666 to learn more and visit: https://www.naturalland.org/donate-land/ 


Farmland Management Procedures Manual

Examining the State of Land Stewardship in Illinois





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