Cultivating a better future: how Michigan farmers can help prevent algae blooms
Over the past few weeks, we have shared with you parts one and two of our plan to combat nuisance and toxic algae blooms. Today, we have the final installment which focuses on better practices for both crop and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).
We saved the best (or worst) for last because, simply put, runoff from agricultural operations is the main contributor to the algae blooms occurring in Lake Erie and all around the Great Lakes Basin. The runoff from both CAFOs and crop operations feed nuisance and toxic algae blooms, and despite the state spending millions of dollars trying to address this problem, we’ve seen only marginal improvements over the past decade.
The state’s current approach for reducing nutrient runoff is through the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP). This program encourages farmers to voluntarily adopt conservation practices across the state, with particular emphasis on regions surrounding Lake Erie. MEC applauds the farmers who are stepping up to improve water quality. However, we believe a total reliance on voluntary programs will not be enough to achieve long-term water quality improvements. The history of voluntary programs does not bode well for their success. They’ve come up short in Ohio, Iowa and across the country. Why would things be different in Michigan?
Voluntary adoption of conservation practices only captures a subset of farmers in the state and allows bad actors to persist. Not only does this perpetuate algae blooms in Lake Erie and other important Michigan waterways, but it's also unfair to those farmers who have adopted best practices. Within our current system, it is impossible to tell apart the farms that are truly committed to conservation practices from those doing the bare minimum. To give praise where praise is due, we must first establish minimum standards and then require all farms to meet them. Then we can start to measure meaningful results and see if our state is investing in the right strategies.
The state should require ALL farms to implement:
- Comprehensive soil testing in the Lake Erie basin.Soil sampling for phosphorus and nitrogen will help combat the over application of fertilizers as well as identify those regions at high risk for nutrient runoff into watersheds. Test results will also help determine appropriate management practices for addressing this pollution. These findings need to be available to the state, in order for them to make informed conservation planning decisions.
- Minimum conservation standards.The state should develop a set of minimum standards that all agricultural producers and CAFOs must adhere to. Requiring better practices such as cover crops, buffer strips and reduced tillage will help to curtail nutrient runoff. Furthermore, the state should be requiring farmers to follow the Tri-State Fertilizer Recommendations. These recommendations use data from farms in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana to create standards for fertilizer use in all three states. Adhering to these recommendations would prevent the over application of manure on Michigan farms.
Our current tactics to combat algae blooms are clearly insufficient because these blooms continue to come back year after year. To really have a chance at fixing this problem, the state must develop conservation standards that apply to all farmers.