Everyman and woman’s job: Part 1

Curbing runoff pollution, the leading threat to the nation’s waters, is everyone’s work.

Spring 2016. Farmers gather together in Blissfield, Mich. to learn about options for protecting Lake Erie from polluted runoff.
Spring 2016. Farmers gather together in Blissfield, Mich. to learn about options for protecting Lake Erie from polluted runoff.

Michigan State University Extension recounts how a Western Lake Erie Basin agriculture education movement has unfolded. Part one examines the growth of the farmer-to-farmer empowerment network. Part two highlights the actions of one of the lead farmers to expand the use of “Pay for Performance” among his neighbors. 

Farmers are not much different than most people. Like the general public, they value the Great Lakes as the region’s most precious natural resource. According to a 2016 survey, only 3 out of 100 people can name the leading cause of impairment to area freshwater resources. Polluted runoff is the little-known, yet most common contributor to water resource degradation. In order to stop the transport of nutrients and sediment from land to waterways, all landowners and managers need a way to audit their practices to discover if the water running off their land is taking pollution with it. If it is, people need to know what actions they can take to address this runoff pollution. It is the duty of each and every person that makes decisions about land management to determine if voluntary nonpoint source pollution reduction efforts will be adequate. A USDA special report on conservation practices in the Western Lake Erie Basin and a University of Michigan study highlight the progress that has been made and the extent of what is thought to be needed to meet water quality goals.

The following story shines a light on one especially promising endeavor in southeast Michigan. Modelers have found that the South Branch of the River Raisin watershed is one of several critical sources of runoff feeding Lake Erie algal blooms, a serious public water supply threat. 

Back in 2011, a determined conservation district employee knew that if farmers could see for themselves the connection between land practices and downstream impacts, they would be proactive in helping to reduce agricultural nutrient and sediment runoff. Amy Gilhouse began an outreach effort previously unparalleled to raise awareness among the agriculture sector by taking farmers on educational trips to visit Lake Erie and Maumee Bay. These “Field to the Great Lakes” trips are extremely popular and have resulted in cascading positive results for conservation program expansion in the region.  

One such outcome is a new peer-to-peer farmer group that has been meeting since December 2013. This group formed because producers who had attended the Field to the Great Lakes events wanted to meet in the winter months to spread the word about the importance of conservation practices and protecting Lake Erie. With Gilhouse’s assistance, they formed the Farmers Advisory Committee (FAC) to share knowledge and involve more producers. This group is very proactive with their recruitment, asking each current participant to go home and find one new farmer to bring to the next meeting. In this way, the FAC has established one of the largest and fastest growing farmer groups focused on water quality.

Consider these statistics:

  • 488 farmers, landowners of farmed land and partners of agriculture have participated in Field to Great Lakes events
  • 120 farmers have attended Farmers Advisory Committee meetings
  • 30 farmers help host and organize meetings and events
  • 10 new farmers are soil testing
  • 6 farmers are volunteering to conduct runoff water monitoring at their farms
  • 80 Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP) verifications
  • 60 new MAEAP recruits

Aside from having the common connection through Gilhouse, the farmer group is decentralized, ensuring that each individual has equal say and opportunity to influence the program. Partners of agriculture assist through lunch sponsorships and educational programs. The farmers dictate what content they want on the program and how it should operate. Their example shows how ordinary people can be empowered to take charge of the runoff passing through their land. 

Read Everyman and woman's job: Part 2 to learn about the actions of one farmer who is promoting Pay for Performance among the neighboring farms in his watershed. 

What is polluted runoff?

When it rains, water picks up dirt and other impurities and carries them to streams and rivers which flow downhill toward the Great Lakes and eventually the ocean. Some of these impurities drop out or volatilize off the stream and river water as it moves downstream. Some pollution is carried all the way to the lakes. There it impacts wildlife, feeds algae growth, and threatens the safety of drinking water.

This nonpoint source pollution is distinguished from point source pollution, which originates from pipes and is managed differently. Point sources are limited by law. The Clean Water Act regulates how much pollution is allowed to leave pipes, like those discharging into rivers from factories and wastewater treatment plants. Nonpoint sources are not regulated. They are addressed by individuals who choose to take action. This legal framework underscores the duty of each individual to limit nutrients and sediment leaving with rainwater from their own property. Read the MSU Extension article Phosphorus losses in surface runoff and tile drainage: Ontario experience for more information on nonpoint pollution.

Want to attend a Field to the Great Lakes event yourself? 

There is no charge, but you need to be a farmer or a partner of agriculture to attend OR bring a farmer with you. You can find out how to sign up by visiting the Farmers Advisory Committee webpage and scrolling down to the 2016 Field to the Great Lakes Event. The first event of this summer will be held on July 28, 2016. 

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