When Bill Myers needed to build his first barn on his Lucas County farm, he didn’t go to the lumber yard; he headed to northern Michigan.
There he cut and milled wood from acres of trees his grandmother had planted on family land.
“You start reaping the benefits from something that somebody two generations ago did knowing that somewhere down the line other generations would benefit,” he said. “I look back at that as one of my biggest life lessons.”
Today, it’s Myers who is looking toward the future. His children, John and Rita, are the fifth generation to farm. And he says it’s his job “to leave the land in better health and more productive than it was before me.”
But to get there, he must adapt now to meet a more urgent challenge. He farms minutes from Lake Erie, where, in recent years, algal blooms fed by phosphorus have hampered summer tourism and threatened drinking water supplies.
He said for many, it’s easy to lay the blame squarely on farmers like him for the nutrients they apply to their fields.
“There’s been times I’ve been the recipient of less than courteous remarks. You can’t be soft skinned. You have to be willing to engage,” he said. “The day we can’t at least have the conversation will be a very sad day.”
He readily admits that agriculture has an impact on water quality. After all, it represents the largest use of land in the Western Lake Erie Basin. But, Myers says, farmers also are leading an effort to fix the problem.
He has minimized tillage and has planted cover crops to both reduce the amount of fertilizer he applies and to prevent nutrients from leaving his fields. Farmers also have recently backed new legislation on fertilizer use, established training programs and invested millions in water quality research.
“The biggest thing I’ve seen missing from this is that there are so many players in this issue,” Myers said.
From his perspective, leaky home septic systems, storm water runoff and lawn fertilizers are among the factors that have been absent from public attention.
“We’re not interested in pointing fingers,” he said. “We’re interested in being at the table to solve this problem and move on to the next thing we need to do to keep producing food.”
His efforts are not simply a reaction to current public pressure. Ten years ago, he joined the Lake Erie Waterkeeper group and is now its vice president. He said he was attracted to the cause because of its straightforward agenda to protect the lake.
“It sounded like the perfect thing to be involved in,” he said. “I’ve been able to at least tell agriculture’s story from the perspective of a person that actually does it. They truly treat you with the respect that every individual should have.”
While he says nobody has all the answers yet, Myers is confident that farmers will find new ways to grow food in harmony with the environment.
“I have to operate with an optimistic attitude. In farming, you’re most generally an optimist,” he said.
In his view, overcoming challenges to meet increasing demands for food is what farmers have always done. And when it comes to keeping his farm sustainable, Myers puts it simply: “Activity on the land should be able to continue indefinitely without degrading soil, water, air or profitability,” he said. “Those are all the equations that have to fit in there; you take any one of those out and it’s not going to work.”
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Read more about Ohio farmers efforts in the area of water quality.
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