The Three Rivers: Agriculture

Mar 25, 2015

Mike Werling examines the soil health in his corn crop. Signs of health include the crumbling texture, earthworms, and live roots from cover crops.
Credit Virginia Alvino / WBOI News

The Great Lakes form the largest group of freshwater lakes on Earth.

Last August, blue green algae blooms in Lake Erie caused hundreds of thousands of people to go without water. The cause – nutrients, especially phosphorous, in the waterways.  Many say unregulated runoff from agriculture was partly to blame.

WBOI’s Virginia Alvino continues our series "The Three Rivers", with a look at how improving agricultural practices can help stem farm pollution and its consequences – and why there’s disagreement about how to make that change happen.

Mike Werling loves soil – not dirt, he’d be quick to correct you. He’s been a farmer in Decatur Indiana his whole life. Out in the field he digs up a clump of soil, then brings some up to my face.  

"You have to give that a whiff,” he says.

It smelled, earthy, Mike says that’s a sign of lots of healthy bacteria. Then we spot a little movement. Earthworms. Werling likes them because their digestion process adds the best nutrients he can get to his soil. “The more of them little critters I can get the better it is," he says.

Erosion control is another major concern for Werling – it can dump sediment and nutrients that are harmful to waterways, and washes away the best soil farmers have. Werling uses lots of methods to control it – no till farming, cover crops that keep live roots in the ground, even innovative drainage systems.

Why?

“I wanna do it, I wanna improve my soil, when I keep the nutrients on the field I have to apply less next year," says Werling.

The St. Mary's River runs along the border of Mike Werling's farm.

  He does it because he wants to – definitely not because he has to. There’s basically no regulation on how much can run off of his fields, but there are resources and funding available to help him be proactive. He gets some of the costs covered by state and federal organizations.

Carrie Volmer-Sanders of the Nature Conservancy is also concerned with agricultural erosion. “There still is some unknowns," she says, "but we have made progress on the research side, so now we know a few steps that we have to take.” 

Immediately after the Lake Erie outbreak, there was a lot of blame cast from all sides. Volmer-Sanders says the process was hard, but stakeholders from all sectors came together and built enough trust to start 4R, part awareness program, part certification for the best fertilizer practices.

The four Rs are the right rate of fertilizer at the right time, putting it in the right place using the right source.

The fairly new program is gaining more traction than Volmer-Sanders had expected. She says it could drastically reduce phosphorous that results in algae blooms. But she says “there has been a lot of resistance.”

She comes to the table knowing that lots of folks just see her as some hippie, a “greenie” as she says. But then she explains she grew up on a farm, “and I am here to make sure that Lake Erie is clean, and that agriculture stays in the basin, then the conversation, generally, switches gears.”

Sanders is not in favor of mandates or more stricter regulation on nutrients, which she says could take many forms, and cost too much. But voluntary programs only work if people participate. So, is the 4R’s enough to rectify our problems?

“I would say no," says Volmer-Sanders. 

Kim Ferarro with the Hoosier Environmental Council says voluntary practices are definitely not enough, because the problem is so severe.

“Ultimately to get everybody doing the right thing which is what has to happen, it is going to have to be a policy change that makes it mandatory," says Ferarro, "or incentivizes it so that it makes money to do the right thing.”

She says regulation is always met with resistance, like before the Clean Water Act was passed in the 70s.

“The same arguments were made by industry back then," says Ferarro, "economies would collapse, and it was gonna be too costly, and the United States would be put at a disadvantage.”

But it did pass, and the country has made environmental improvements since then. Now, Ferraro says runoff from agriculture is the next big hurdle.  

“There’s no reason that industry can’t be responsible like all other industries,” says Ferraro.

But she doesn’t expect change any time soon. She says “there are very powerful lobbying interests, industry interest that push back very successfully on any sort of meaningful regulation.”

Back at the farm, Mike Werling says he wants to see more voluntary measures, to prevent mandates. But how do you get other farmers on board?

"Number one I tell em we’re gonna have to sometime. We have to do it," says Werling. "It’s on us to help improve it.”

But it can’t just be about good stewardship. There’s no immediate payback for improving practices. Wirling says agriculture is an old industry, one that can be stuck in its ways.

“You tell me how you change perception, and practices they’ve been doing all these years," says Werling. "It’s hard to change. We don’t wanna change.”

Mike says while there has been great progress, changing attitudes is always a slow process.

Of course, that’s if regulation doesn’t step in first.