Michigan farm czar: Our fight against Lake Erie pollution isn't working
The director of Michigan’s Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has bad news about Michigan’s efforts to curb the farm pollution that fuels Lake Erie’s toxic green algae.
“We’re not seeing progress in the way we want to see it,” Tim Boring, a sixth-generation farmer who took the helm at MDARD in March, told Bridge Michigan, and it’s time for a new approach.
As part of a 2015 agreement, Ohio, Michigan and Ontario gave themselves until 2025 to reduce phosphorus spilling into Lake Erie by 40 percent compared to 2008 levels. It has become clear they won’t meet the deadline.
On Tuesday, representatives from throughout the Western Lake Erie Basin — which includes parts of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and Ontario — will gather to consider the lake’s future at the inaugural state of the basin conference in Adrian.
Boring will be delivering a blunt message.
Regional governments’ longstanding approach, which relies primarily on paying farmers to adopt watershed-friendly practices voluntarily, isn’t working, he said. So Boring is pushing a new approach.
He wants the state to target practices that threaten Lake Erie and rural farming communities: Namely, industry consolidation that has emptied out farm towns, expanded single-crop farms that require lots of fertilizer, and separated farms that grow crops from those that raise livestock, all of which help fuel fertilizer and manure pollution.
“This current system has prioritized simple commodity production: Minimize risk, simplify management on fields,” Boring said. “And it just gives us a situation where we continue to lose crop diversity and it’s increasingly susceptible to economic and environmental shocks.”
Bridge interviewed Boring ahead of Tuesday’s gathering. Here are some key takeaways:
No new regulations, but a new model of incentives
Lake Erie’s algae blooms are primarily caused by phosphorus from fertilizer and manure that pours off farm fields and feedlots. Unlike wastewater effluent and industrial pollution, so-called “non-point” pollution isn’t regulated under state or federal law.
Rather than placing enforceable limits on farm pollution, Michigan and other states have long encouraged farmers to use less fertilizer, plant cover crops like peas and oats to reduce soil erosion and unlock soil nutrients during the winter when fields would otherwise be bare, or make other changes designed to reduce runoff.
Few farmers do so voluntarily, so state and federal governments pay farmers to participate. But the money has never been enough to cause widespread change. And farmers who do participate often revert back to their old ways as soon as the payments run out.
“It’s just not going to work,” Boring said of the old approach.
Environmentalists have long argued that Lake Erie won’t be saved unless the governmentforces farmers to reduce their pollution loads into Lake Erie, rather than simply encouraging it.
Boring said he still believes a voluntary approach can work, but it will require changes.
One option for reform, he said, is shifting from the current model, which pays farmers for implementing specific practices like planting cover crops or maintaining grassy strips at the edge of farm fields to catch and filter runoff, to one that pays them for measurably improving water quality.
And the state must be more judicious about how it doles out payments, Boring said. Rather than signing up “whoever walks in the door,” he said, the state must target its payments toward “higher-risk fields” that are doing the most harm to Lake Erie.
More support for small farms
Lake Erie’s phosphorus pollution problems have grown worse amid decades of consolidation in farm country. Diverse family farms have been steadily gobbled up by massive operations that primarily grow either cattle feed such as corn, or cows — and not on the same piece of land.
The corn grown on one megafarm is shipped to a separate factory-sized livestock operation, which produces huge amounts of manure yet lacks the cropland on which cow poop becomes a valuable fertilizer.
The corn farm, in contrast, has plenty of acreage but no cows to fertilize it. So the farmer resorts to chemical fertilizers.
“It’s not the problem that we have too much manure, it’s that we have manure in all the wrong places,” Boring said.
Boring sees the state playing a bigger role in protecting small farms, which tend to grow more diverse crops while also raising livestock, and helping them succeed without expanding their acreage.
In doing so, he said, Michigan can bolster rural communities that rely on farming and food processing jobs.
“Maintaining a specialty crop industry of fruit and vegetables in Michigan is absolutely in (the best interests of) Michigan's economy, our food system and the social identity of the state,” Boring said.
Making a case for climate-smart farming
Climate change exacerbates the farm pollution problem.
The Great Lakes region is experiencing more intense and sporadic rain events, leading to periods of drought followed by floods that send polluted water streaming off farm fields and into Lake Erie.
Boring sees that challenge as an opportunity to get more farmers interested in regenerative agriculture, which aims to build healthy soils by planting cover crops, plowing less often and rationing artificial fertilizers.
Richer soil is better at absorbing rainfall, and less-likely to erode during storms. It holds moisture longer, helping farmers weather droughts. And it requires fewer expensive chemical fertilizers, which reduces pollution and saves farmers money.
Michigan is in the midst of a pilot project to support regenerative agriculture on a handful of farms. If successful, Boring said, it could expand.
“The examples of success are out there,” he said, including at his own family’s farm in Stockbridge.
Boring’s family has stopped tilling its fields, started using cover crops and cut its commercial fertilizer use in half.
“Yields continue to go up,” he said.
The state will release its revised action plan for Lake Erie in the coming months. Fixing the ag pollution that ails the lake will require more progress across the basin, particularly in Ohio which is responsible for the majority of the lake’s phosphorus runoff.