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Q&A: Lauren Lurkins, Illinois Farm Bureau director of environmental policy

Environmental attorney advocates for farmers.

Environmental advocacy groups and farm organizations often tussle like two tomcats in a gunny sack. Still, there are times when both sides meet in the middle, says Lauren Lurkins, who navigates both worlds.

An undergraduate environmental science major who followed a similar law school track, Lurkins is also director of environmental policy for the Illinois Farm Bureau (IFB).

“I do believe there’s common ground,” she says. “There are some good examples of this occurring when people are willing to come to the table and work as promised.”

Seeing this in action from the farmer’s side is especially gratifying for Lurkins.

“Farmers are the original environmentalists,” she says. “When you get to know farmers, you see that this is more than just a statement. We have farmer-members who volunteer to host academic research for multiple years on their farms. These are controlled experiments, such as putting in a bioreactor or sampling water. They then open up their farms [through field days] for people to come and check it out.”

Lurkins shares her environmental and agricultural perspectives below.

SF: How did you become an environmental attorney?

LL: I grew up in Marion in southern Illinois. My dad and his dad were prison guards, and I knew I didn’t want to be one. I was a joiner in high school, and I did a ton of different things. It was much easier to identify the things I absolutely did not want to do. I have an aunt and an uncle who focused on environmental law. Ultimately, that became my goal, as I majored in environmental science in college.

SF: Did this environmental interest continue into law school?

LL: Yes, 100%. The most boring thing about law school is that for three years, you focus on courses that prepare you for the bar exam. However, you do get to take some electives, just as you did as an undergrad. One of my professors at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, Patricia McCubbin, focused on environmental law. I was able to take some classes on the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, which is what I focus on now.

SF: What’s your legal philosophy?

LL: I love to advocate. Mostly, people are trying to do the right thing, but our world is pretty complicated when it comes to environmental legal issues. When I interviewed for my current job, my [future] boss asked me, “Will you miss the traditional practice of law?” I had been working on a case where I researched the definition of one word in the Clean Air Act for about three months. I said, “No, I think I’ll be good."

The policy work we do here [at IFB] is really forward looking, trying to shape the future. Most days, it feels more impactful than the traditional practice of law.

SF: What is IFB’s position on climate change and carbon markets?

LL: USDA is rolling out several different climate change and carbon-related programs, and the Build Back Better legislation contained climate and carbon aspects. While we support the concept of market-based solutions to climate change issues, what we're seeing in reality will not prompt farmers to participate in the market at scale. But instead of saying “We don't like it,” we’re thinking about those barriers and what could be done to overcome them.

SF: Livestock farmers are often the focal point for critics. How can the industry respond?

LL: I used to represent livestock farmers in my old job. Like now, they are in the crosshairs of environmental activists. However, there is a lot of great work being done [to improve water quality or reduce greenhouse gas emissions], such as feed additives or applying or storing manure in different ways. Whether it is pork, beef, or dairy, we are producing more by while using less. To me, that is the ultimate definition of sustainability. In Illinois, we have a coalition involving all farm organizations to ensure that non-farm folks and even those farmers who are more grain focused, understand the value livestock brings to our state.

SF: What are some projects you’re currently working on?

LL: Our main water issue is quality driven through the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy.

For background, I gave a talk when I was a college senior in 2003 about point and nonpoint source pollution in the Gulf of Mexico. I can’t seem to escape the issue, because when I came to Illinois Farm Bureau in 2013, the issue was starting to be addressed in the state. Environmental groups, farm groups, the point source community, academics, and state agencies met regularly to develop our [water quality] strategy. 

The group acknowledged the issue was not going to be solved in five or six or even 10 years, but they formed common ground and acknowledged that we all have some role to play. We started working on it voluntarily, which I believe is the best approach.

Have we met the goals for water quality? No. Will we meet them when my kids are having grandkids? I don’t know, but I know we won’t meet them if we aren’t working together. When we talk about all these environmental challenges, benchmarks, and goals, farmers also are faced with decisions to make about input prices or availability of fertilizer. This will complicate matters even more. Still, if we lock ourselves into a regulatory structure for a solution, we lose innovation, which we desperately need.

SF Bio

Name: Lauren Lurkins

Background: Lurkins earned a degree in environmental science from St. Louis University and a law degree from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. 

She and the Illinois Farm Bureau are gearing up for nine summer field days focused on nutrient stewardship and soil health across Illinois. She’s also working on Waters of the U.S., which she says determines what jurisdiction government agencies have over what farmers do on their farms.

Lurkins worked in private practice before working for Illinois Farm Bureau. One of her more memorable cases involved a refinery that accidentally released petroleum products into harvested grain. “I got a crash course into how big of an issue it was when you have a release like that in the middle of October during harvest,” she says.

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