Growing Returns

Why wastewater treatment plants are investing in farmers

Wastewater treatment plant. Credit: Flickr user Florida Water Daily.

Wastewater treatment plant. Credit: Flickr user Florida Water Daily.

The Des Moines Water Works lawsuit represents one of the most contentious challenges in modern-day agriculture: who should pay for protecting water quality from excessive nutrient loads?

Excess nutrients in streams and watersheds can cause algae blooms as well as air and water pollution. Whether due to excess fertilizer runoff from agriculture, urban sewage, stormwater runoff, or air depositions of nitrogen, wastewater treatment facilities often bear the primary responsibility of nutrient removal in many watersheds. Under the Clean Water Act, these facilities are charged with cleaning water to a certain standard, which can be increasingly hard to meet – and to pay for – when excess nutrients are present.

But there are some interesting solutions in the works.

I asked Pat Sinicropi, Senior Director of Legislative Affairs at the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA), to tell me about the collaborative approach her organization is taking to solve the problem – by working with farmers. Read More »

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Taking the bloom and gloom out of Lake Erie

NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory .

Green algae in the Great Lakes. Photo credit: NOAA

It’s been one year since a massive algae bloom in Lake Erie contaminated the drinking water of more than 500,000 Ohio residents.

Since that time, we’ve seen an increase in legislative actions and governmental commitments to reduce fertilizer runoff. Yet the harmful algae that showed up last summer have bloomed again. This summer’s catastrophic rains have caused farm fields to flood, sending fertilizer into Lake Erie. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, this year’s algae bloom could be the second largest on record.

Nutrient efficiency and soil health practices can create a powerful antidote to Lake Erie’s bloom and doom cycle. But farmers need more support and guidance in making changes on their farm. And they need to know that these practices won’t reduce yields.

That’s why an innovative platform called SUSTAIN™ is taking off. SUSTAIN provides agricultural retailers with training on the best tools and practices for reducing fertilizer runoff and increasing soil health – but also focuses on maintaining productivity. Earlier this summer, a group of central Ohio retailers became SUSTAIN authorized – and while it’s not a silver bullet, this effort has enormous potential to keep Lake Erie’s algae blooms at bay.

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How to end the fertilizer guessing game

TractorLanceCheungUSDAviaFlickrAs spring planting season gets underway, many farmers are starting to wonder how much nitrogen they should apply to their crops this year to maximize yields.

The traditional approach is to apply a bit of extra fertilizer as an insurance policy to protect yields in case some of it washes away. The problem is, this is costly – nitrogen fertilizer accounts for at least half of farmers’ input costs, even though on average, 50 percent of the nitrogen applied is lost – and harmful to air and water quality.

What we need is to get to a sweet spot of fertilizer application – meaning the right amount that both protects natural resources and maximizes yields.

I asked Thomas Morris, professor of soil fertility at the University of Connecticut, about ways that research, precision agriculture tools, and data analysis can help farmers determine the right amount of fertilizer to apply to their crops. Read More »

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No-till farming can reduce input costs and improve soil health

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No-till expert Barry Fisher. Credit: NRCS

Everyone agrees that no-till farming should be used in conjunction with other practices to maximize soil health – but in reality, “no-till” means different things to different people across the agricultural world.

To clarify what exactly is involved in no-till farming, a key topic of discussion at this week’s Soil Health Partnership (SHP) summit in St. Louis, I asked one of Indiana’s leading tillage experts, Barry Fisher, an agronomist and soil health specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

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Will Ohio’s proposed fertilizer legislation solve the runoff problem?

Proposed legislation in Ohio would regulate when farmers can apply fertilizer to their fields

Proposed legislation in Ohio would regulate when farmers can apply fertilizer to their fields.

The Ohio General Assembly will vote next week on legislation that aims to address the problem of nutrient pollution, which was responsible for a massive algae bloom in Lake Erie that contaminated the drinking water of more than 400,000 Ohio residents this past August.

In short, the bill would ban application of fertilizer on land that is frozen, covered by snow, saturated with rain, or when the weather predicts a certain amount of rainfall. Those who violate the ban could face penalties of up to $10,000.

Policies that set rational ground rules for when farmers can apply fertilizer to their fields and that create real incentives to reduce nutrient pollution are important, but it’s going to take more than legislation to solve the runoff problem. Read More »

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Lake Erie’s fertilizer problem isn’t over, but we’re working on it

tractor fertilizing

Fertilizer is the engine of agriculture, but its inefficient use means that excess fertilizer ends up in our waterways, contaminating freshwater supplies and causing algae blooms, such as those that recently cut off water supplies to hundreds of thousands of residents in Toledo, OH. In addition to impacts on communities, algae blooms also affect ecosystems, killing millions of fish and harming the seafood and recreation industries.

Nutrient runoff from fertilizer is a problem that many stakeholders, including farmers, have been trying to fix for many years, both in the Western Lake Erie Basin and beyond. The efforts to date have had a real impact, but that impact has not been nearly enough to solve the problem of dangerous and costly dead zones.

We need to do much more at a much larger scale, while also increasing productivity to feed a growing population.

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