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Farmers learn practices to improve Michigan's water quality

December 9, 2022
Photo by Madison Echlin | The State News

MSU’s Institute of Water Research finished its five-year project to improve Michigan water quality through farming practice this fall. The research team’s methods were seven times more effective than previous methodology. 

The project focused on improving water quality in Lake Erie’s western basin. For the past decade, scientists have recorded high numbers of harmful algal blooms in the water, most of which have been caused by significant increases in dissolved reactive phosphorus. 

Project Manager Connor Crank said the majority of Lake Erie’s phosphorus is coming from agricultural lands. The phosphorus may be coming from the amount of fertilizer applied, the application timing or the application practices.

The research team set out to improve these farming practices to decrease phosphorus runoff.

To achieve this, the MSU team partnered with the conservation districts in Washtenaw and Lenawee Counties and the River Raisin Watershed Council. Together, they received a $1 million grant from the Environmental Protection Agency in 2020.

Next, the team set up a first-come-first-serve system for farmers to sign up for the project. The team’s technicians worked one-on-one with farmers to assess their land and teach them about environmentally friendly farming. One of the prerequisites for enrollment was that farmers have never been involved in a different funding opportunity for conservation practices before in an attempt to reach more farmers new to the topic. 

“We really wanted to educate these farmers on not only how to install these practices, but also why these are important,” Crank said. “We got really lucky because we had two technicians from each conservation district that were like superstars, and they really worked with the farmers and tracked people down that they thought would be interested in learning about this program and submitting applications.”

The improved practices included planting cover crops and filter strips, reducing tilling and changing fertilizer application.

The team used the funding to pay farmers who successfully participated in the project. Crank said the project was a success, as they exceeded all their goals.

The project reduced the cost of lowering phosphorus to $30 per pound, as opposed to the $181 average per-pound cost of previous conservation practices in the River Raisin Watershed. Given the project’s success, Crank said the team will likely share their approach to be more widely used.

“I think what would probably be the most effective for what we've learned from this project is to try and take the novel approach that we used toward farmer enrollment and application into being a part of a best management practice project, and then try and teach other people … what we did,” Crank said. "So I think that that approach is something that other institutions and funders would definitely be interested in learning about, because who doesn't like saving money?”

Crank said projects like this are crucial to improving Michigan’s waterways and life for all Michiganders. 

“We have an enormous amount of agricultural land in Michigan, and getting the education and outreach out there to educate farmers on how to appropriately apply fertilizer and best conserve their own land — that's literally the best thing that you can do for everyone,” Crank said. “It's better for the farmer. It's better for the people who are eating their crops, and it's better for the people who want to be able to use our waterways for recreation.”

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