Who gets water quality?

First, let me say that I get it.

I understand that the farmers in the Lake Erie Watershed were listening to the science and doing what everyone told them. It was once common knowledge that phosphorus did not move in the soil and that reducing tillage was the answer to the algal woes of Lake Erie because phosphorus attached to the soil.

Farmers did what they thought they were supposed to do. With less tillage reducing erosion, phosphorus could be applied when most convenient in the most convenient way. Lake Erie got better and the problem was solved. But it wasn’t.

Unfortunately, the science used to develop the recommendations for those practices had not taken all of reality into consideration. With this compliant shift toward conservation, broadcast phosphorus in reduced tillage situations started to concentrate on the surface and not attach to soil particles. This led to issues with surface runoff of small amounts of very potent dissolved phosphorus after big rains. When broadcast in the fall and winter or early spring on bare soil before big rains, the problems were compounded.

The result, even after doing what they had been told to do, left farmers squarely in the crosshairs of the public blame game when Lake Erie’s ugly algae problems again bloomed. Farmers were frustrated and felt they had done their part, but the public was not pleased and there was plenty of data to support agricultural blame.

So, late last month I sat in a room at the National Museum of the Great Lakes in Toledo with numerous stern-faced urban/suburban/environmental journalists in formal dress for a visit from Hillary Clinton later that day. They sat and listened to the summary from OSU researcher Elizabeth Dayton clearly stating:

  • Agricultural soil phosphorus levels are holding steady or trending downward in at least 80% of Ohio counties from 1993 through 2015.
  • Soil nutrient testing is vital to determining the right amount and type of fertilizer needed for crops.
  • Incorporating fertilizer into the soil through banding or injecting has the potential to reduce the concentration risk of phosphorus in runoff up to 90% under certain conditions.
  • Tile drainage is an effective filtration system that can reduce soil erosion and prevent the loss of nutrients. In general, phosphorus concentration from tile runoff is less than in surface runoff.
  • Current guidelines for phosphorus levels in soil established by Tri-State Fertilizer Recommendations appear to be on the right track.
  • Nearly three-quarters of phosphorus in surface runoff is attached to and travels with eroded soil sediment, making erosion control a key to phosphorus runoff control.

All of the journalists in that room heard this information, and maybe they even understood it. It is quite possible they know that farmers want to do what is right but also must balance the challenges of weather, logistics, economics, and countless other factors when making farm management decisions. They heard that farmers care about clean water, but do they get it? I’m not sure. And if the journalists do not get it, do you think the general public will?

Agriculture I know you are trying to do what is right for the environment and for your farms. But in today’s ever increasing demand for accountability and traceability in all levels of our society, you not only have to do what is right but you also have to demonstrate that you are doing things right in a way people who do not get what you are doing can understand. And now, courtesy of big investments in terms of time, money, collaboration and research, there are some fairly concrete answers on what needs to happen in agriculture to address water quality.

I get that: budgets are tight, time is limited, resources are stretched thin, prices are low, inputs are high, questions are numerous, trends are headed in the right direction, ag is not the only contributor, and there are plenty of “ifs” and “buts.” The general public and the stern-faced journalists, however, do not really seem to care. They care about clean water and I know you do too.

The dry conditions in 2016 led to less runoff and, as a result, a smaller algae bloom in Lake Erie. Because of that, the issue was somewhat out of the spotlight this year, but we all know the algae issue has not gone away. And while there are still many questions, those in row-crop agriculture who want to address problems with water quality and costly nutrient loss now have some fairly clear guidelines to follow and plenty of help from Ohio farm organizations and agribusiness to help implement and showcase those efforts. The answers are as simple and simultaneously complex as the 4Rs.

In what will surely be an ongoing battle with nutrient loss in agriculture, we finally have some answers. Now we all need to make sure we are acting on them. Do you get it? I sincerely hope that you do.


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  1. Very well put Matt.
    Thank you.

  2. I was going to respond yesterday, but this is a pretty good update from Matt. Regarding today’s piece, I will add that those same journalists probably fertilize and unnecessarily water their lawns contributing to the problem as well. Residential areas close to lakes where runoff is closet to the source should be held accountable as well. The same holds for Municipalities like Detroit who because of budget problems have not managed sewage treatment and storm sewer overflow like they should. Ag can only handle the Ag side of the equation. Too solve it or maybe better said help limit the problems requires the efforts of everyone and an unbiased media willing to tell the whole story. Good luck with that, right?

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