As Great Lakes water program director for the National Wildlife Federation, Gail Hesse has a strong interest in seeing what is being done to prevent harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie. She recently joined scientists, policymakers, professors, state and government officials and farmers on a tour of three farms in northwestern Ohio showcasing both new and traditional conservation practices that help prevent nutrient runoff, which can cause algal blooms.
The farms are part of the Blanchard River Demonstration Farms Network, a five-year, $1 million project. Ohio Farm Bureau and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service are partners on the project.
“This is a complex issue and everybody wants a silver bullet (to solve the problem) but the reality is that it’s a combination of things and there’s still a lot of unanswered science questions,” Hesse said. “I’m excited to see people looking for answers. We can’t afford not to because there’s a cost to the tourism industry and environment.”
Before going on their tour, participants heard Laura Johnson, director of the National Center for Water Quality Research at Heidelberg University, describe research into the cause of harmful algal blooms. She said research shows phosphorus loss is only about 1 pound per acre, or the equivalent of a mason jar.
“It’s great to hear the recognition that farmers are losing very low phosphorus but a small loss multiplied by many acres has a big impact on the ecosystem,” said Chelsie Boles, a project engineer with LimnoTech, an environmental consulting firm. Her family farms in the Upper Maumee Watershed.
Research being done on the demonstration farms can help show farmers what works best on their land and is economically feasible, said Aaron Heilers, project manager of the Blanchard River demonstration farms.
“When you’re putting down 150 pounds of fertilizer, losing the equivalent of a mason jar is not a lot for a farmer but it is for an entire watershed. We’re trying to find how to economically prevent that last mason jar from leaving the field,” Heilers said.
Tour participants visited Kellogg Farms where they learned about the family’s $250,000 investment in equipment that places nutrients several inches deep into the soil to prevent runoff. At Kurt Farms, they learned about edge-of-field research, two-stage ditches, nutrient removal beds and cover crops. At Stateler Farms, attendees toured a hog farm and learned how the farm stores and sells liquid manure and is switching to a variable rate nutrient placement system next year. On the Stateler farm, researchers are looking at a septic system that is being replaced to see if these types of systems are impacting water quality.
“(With septic systems), it can be hard to think your waste product could be one of the causes of the problem with Lake Erie. We need buy-in from everybody,” Boles said.
Kent State University associate professor John Hoornbeek said the tour helped him have a better understanding of farming.
“I’ve learned quite a bit. I was pleased to see how engaged the folks were at the demonstration farms in helping solve water quality problems,” he said. “This is their livelihood and this is their business. They have a real interest in doing what they can (to improve water quality).”