Illinoisan's fight with NRCS spanned nine years

Kurt Wilke spent nine years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight the government’s insistence there was a wetland on his family’s farm.

His father-in-law, Carl Hoffee, purchased 80 acres in Macon County in 2010 and relied on a USDA form that stated: “Tract does not contain a wetland.” It’s been continuously farmed with a drain tile system for more than 100 years.

Soon after buying the land, Hoffee began tiling improvements. NRCS showed up and told “him to stop the work, that he was putting farm programs at risk,” Wilke said. NRCS asserted the farm contained 22.4 acres of wetlands based on undated, one-time aerial photographs and issued a technical determination, Wilke said.

Hoffee’s trust appealed to the National Appeals Division (NAD), which ruled in the trust’s favor because NRCS didn’t make a site visit.

NRCS then reissued the same determination. The trust appealed again. NAD ruled in favor of the trust again in 2014 – this time because the agency’s analysis employed improper weather data.

NRCS issued the same determination for a third time. Hoffee died pending the outcome of this case, and Wilke continued the appeal. NRCS withdrew its determination a few days before a hearing in 2015, and then issued a new determination asserting the farm contained 14.2 acres of wetlands based on a scope and effect analysis. 

The trust again appealed in 2016, and NAD found in favor of the trust again. The director affirmed the case, Wilke said, finding the agency’s analysis violated its own regulations and was “based purely on conjecture.”

Wilke, a Springfield lawyer who is also the succcessor trustee, told his story in Washington, D.C. last year with Illinois Farm Bureau staff. The group met with USDA Undersecretary Bill Northey; U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Hoffman Estates; and staff from the Senate and House Ag Committees.

“I could see heads spinning as Kurt told his story,” said Adam Nielsen, IFB director of national legislation and policy development.  “Everyone we met with quickly recognized that if he weren’t a lawyer and a farmer, NRCS and the appeals process would have buried him and wrongfully denied his family’s right to farm land that should never have been in question.”

Lauren Lurkins, IFB’s director of environmental policy, said Wilke isn’t alone.

“His case is representative of the many, many calls that I get from farmers across the state on this issue,” Lurkins said. “This is why we support American Farm Bureau Federation’s call to end NRCS’ regulatory abuse.”

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