At his Lake Erie cottage, he’s not Don or Mr. Ralph. He’s simply the farmer.
“I’ll go up and down the street and the kids will holler at me ‘Hey farmer,’” Ralph said with a smile as he pulled into the gravel driveway between his barns and his Marion County home.
If he’s not here, there’s a good chance he’s at the lake, catching walleye, in a boat that shares his moniker.
“I don’t boat. I only fish. And this is a fishing boat,” he said.
But being “the farmer” put Ralph in an interesting position last summer. A large bloom of toxic algae formed on the lake. Many pointed to phosphorous from agricultural fertilizer as the culprit—the type of fertilizer that Ralph and other farmers use to grow grain.
It was the worst algal bloom Ralph had seen in his 40 years on the water. One word described it: “disgusting.” He also saw the impact on his friends who make a living from the lake.
“For me to go there and look at those guys and say ‘I’m the guy that messed up your livelihood,’ I never want to be able to say that,” Ralph said. “Ever.”
That’s why he hopes people will follow his story from Lake Erie back up the Sandusky River through the Tymochtee Creek to a stream that runs along his land.
This is where he and his family make their living on a farm started by his father that now spans four generations.
A connection to the land
Pulling off the highway, Ralph’s red pickup truck creeps along a recently mowed swath of grass.
“I can’t sit in the house sometimes, so the other day I mowed down through here,” Ralph laughed.
With each rut, his keys jingle in the ignition.
“Do you know what that weed is there, that real funny looking one that grows up real tall?” he asked, pointing out the window. “That’s called teasel. We’re an old Plains area here and that’s a Plains plant.”
He turns off the engine.
On his right: a cornfield. On his left: a 120-foot wide grass strip running along the creek. There is rustling in the chest-high vegetation, then the bobbing antlers of a deer.
“Water that would wash down here, it goes through this area of tall grass,” Ralph explains. “And that filters and slows the water down and allows sediment to settle here in this grass strip and not go rushing right into the creek and right down into the drainage system.”
Years ago, his family took nearly 200 acres of land out of production to plant these protective filter strips. More recently, he and many of his neighbors partnered with a local company to test their soil and create detailed maps that will help them use the minimum amount of fertilizer. Ralph is also on the board of Ohio Farm Bureau, giving leadership to the group’s efforts to help farmers share information on improving water quality.
He notes that agriculture is not the only source of phosphorous—there are wastewater treatment plants, septic systems, suburban lawns and golf courses. And last year, there was unusually hot, wet weather that encouraged algal growth. But rather than assign blame, he says he and fellow farmers want to do their part.
“We’re all players in this whole scheme of things,” he said.
At the same time, he worries about the impact that new regulation could have on his family. He cautions that it may take years to solve water quality challenges. But above all, he struggles when he hears someone imply that farmers don’t care.
“Because I know that’s not true,” he said, noting that clean water is essential to sustainable farming. “How could it be true?”
That becomes evident as Ralph explains his choice to become a farmer, pointing to the joys of working with family and a love of nature. Now, he’s putting his energy toward a solution that will protect his way life—both on the farm and on the water.
“I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world,” Ralph said of farming. “In fact I like it so well, I can only be at the lake so many days and then I have to get back down here and look at the farm. And then I can go back, but it’s hard for me to stay away very long.”
Watch a video of Don Ralph.