Farmers growing solutions to help solve Lake Erie water problems

  • Doug-Darling-with-Mr-Matsui-of-Japan-ministry-of-agriculture-JPG

    Darling Farms owner Doug Darling shares some of the innovative techniques Monroe County farmers are embracing to help prevent algae blooms and improve Lake Erie’s water quality during a visit with Yoji Matsui, Deputy Director, Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries of Japan, and his colleague.

  • The water quality in the Western Lake Erie Basin has become a major concern in recent years for northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan.

    The Darling Farms, a sixth-generation farm family of 185 years in Monroe County, Michigan, is doing something about it.

    There is no consensus on what’s causing the algal bloom in Lake Erie, but former agricultural practices of the past (combined with many other causes — industrial, invasive species, etc.) are a contributor.

    Michigan Cleaner Lake Erie Though Action and Research (MI CLEAR) is a partnership working to improve Lake Erie and the water quality of the Western Lake Erie Basin. Their goal is to improve the long-term water quality through open discussion among regional leaders, support research that builds an understanding of science around water quality issues, and boost actions that bring meaningful change.

    The Darling farm has taken proactive measures on their land to keep nutrients from entering local waterways – such as changing the way fertilizer is applied – to keep runoff to a minimum.

    “MI CLEAR is doing an excellent job of conveying the opportunities of different systems to farmers for how we can help improve the water quality and the environment and also improve our economic viability,” said Doug Darling, who runs the family business with his parents, Elgin and Joanne.

    Doug Darling and his son, Dayton Darling, were featured in the 2016 issue of Michigan Agriculture Magazine. The article was called “Farming Responsibly,” and focused on how Darling Farms’ conservation practices protect Michigan’s natural resources.
    Doug Darling and his son, Dayton Darling, were featured in the 2016 issue of Michigan Agriculture Magazine. The article was called “Farming Responsibly,” and focused on how Darling Farms’ conservation practices protect Michigan’s natural resources.

    Darling Farms is verified through Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP), which is a voluntary, proactive program helping farms of all sizes prevent or minimize pollution risks.

    MAEAP lays out effective ways for farmers to practice agriculture in such a way that will vastly minimize, if not altogether eliminate, phosphorus from farmer fertilizer.

    The Darling farm uses filter strips planted between farm and surface water to provide a buffer and protect water and soil quality.

    “We utilize fertilizer soil testing and have filter strips,” Darling said. “A number of farms in Lenawee and Monroe counties have these. We have about 49 acres designated as filter strips. They look like a large grass ribbon next to a drainage ditch. It captures any nutrients that are looking to migrate off the property. It keeps them from making them to the stream.

    “We also utilize soil testing – we are not putting out any more fertilizer than what our soil can produce. Our costs are so high we have to watch every penny. We don’t just throw fertilizer randomly. It is specifically blended to a field. Some farmers are utilizing a GPS system for soil testing so you maximize your efficiency.”

    Another practice for solving the water problem is no-till farming.

    “We plant our crop directly into the crop residue from the year before,” Darling said. “Our planters are set up to leave the crop residue – corn stalk or wheat stubble or bean stubble. That helps mitigate any type of runoff if you have a big rain event as opposed to doing the tillage and disrupt the soil.

    We have found economically we can do just as well with our no-till system. You don’t see the volume of dirt in the water system. We have one farm where we have done this for 30 years. All of our soybeans and wheat are no-till and the majority of corn.

    “We look at what can we do for the environment and what is profitable. You’re trying to provide for your family and you have to be profitable and we found we can be just as profitable with no-till and that’s the bottom line.”

    There is no quick and easy fix to the water problems. Lake Erie has evolved over decades and continues to change.

    The causes are complex with no single cause. MI CLEAR is examining multiple factors as part of the holistic solution: agriculture, industry, stormwater runoff, wastewater, climate, and infrastructure.

    New technology is a key and breakthroughs are happening all the time. Partnerships with public and private sector are essential.

    “Agriculture can be part of the solution but we are not the entire problem as some have set out to label us or livestock operations,” Darling said. “We’re all in this for the solution together but it is not any one single culprit.

    “There have been situations of water samplings and it was calculated that it was coming off lawns from decomposed grass. Nature has a way of recycling these nutrients and they have a way of ending up in the water somehow.

    “We live here and farmers do care about water quality.”

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