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Algae Crisis Pt. I: From Farm To Lakeshore

Satellite image, October 2011: The extent of the worst algae bloom seen on Lake Erie since the 70s (NOAA/NASA).
Satellite image, October 2011: The extent of the worst algae bloom seen on Lake Erie since the 70s (NOAA/NASA).

SCHAEFER: In the farm fields of Northwest Ohio, making the connection between fertilizer and Lake Erie algae can be a hard sell. Forty-eight year old Defiance County farmer Ben Keil shakes his head as he looks over 200-acres of drought-stricken corn.

BEN KEIL: I don't think most people realize how much money is involved in raising a crop. It's huge.

SCHAEFER: Keil says this field alone cost him $86,000 dollars to produce. And he may not get much of a crop this year.

KEIL: That's just inputs. Fertilizer and seed and chemicals and spray.

SCHAEFER: Keil has heard the arguments that what he does on his Northwest Ohio farmland contributes to the return of Lake Erie algae. But he's not sure what more he can do. He's already adopted the practice of seeding new crops directly into the residue of last year's fields without plowing first, a technique called no-till agriculture.

KEIL: I do for the most part all no-till. It's a proven farming technique. All the money spent on fuel you save, you know.

SCHAEFER: Financial viability is the bottom line for most farmers here along the Maumee River. The Maumee passes through 4.5-million acres of farmland before entering Lake Erie at Toledo. Along the way it picks up a lot of topsoil from farm fields. Attached to that soil are fine particles of phosphorus, one of the nutrients that helps crops grow, but also feeds algae blooms. No-till farming has reduced particulate phosphorus runoff by nearly 40-percent. But researchers from Heidelberg University say their thirty years of water quality data shows that another form of phosphorus – called dissolved phosphorus – has risen dramatically in recent years. And to reduce that nutrient enough to curb Lake Erie algae blooms will take a whole new set of techniques.

FRANK GIBBS: You know what? Where you are standing, right now, you are in the fat of the land. Look at this soil.

SCHAEFER: A few miles away from Ben Keil's cornfield, USDA soil scientist Frank Gibbs is standing in a deep trench he's dug in a field of soybeans growing through the stalks of last year's corn crop. He points to worm holes deep beneath the surface.

GIBBS: The night crawlers come up. You have this beautiful fine structure, even though this is heavy clay soil.

SCHAEFER: The soil looks good and is less of an algae threat, because of a technique farmer Allen Dean used. After harvesting his corn, but before planting beans, Dean sowed a cover crop of rye. Cover crops help untilled soil remain porous and better able hold on to nutrients like dissolved phosphorus.

GIBBS: The cover crop puts roots down, we're opening the soil up naturally. And I told Allen, compared to the way we used to farm? We're farming with nature.

SCHAEFER: Cover crops are just one of the new practices researchers are urging Ohio farmers to adopt. Another is to apply fertilizer exactly when and where it's needed. This requires using expensive soil tests and GPS mapping of crop yields. Recent studies also indicate that the timing of fertilizer applications is crucial. It needs to go on only in the spring, and the fertilizer needs to be incorporated well into the soil, not just spread on top. Again, that too would add to a farmer's costs. Amy Jo Klei is the Lake Erie coordinator for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.

KLEI: Some of the new technologies that are very effective in the studies we've seen aren't cheap, and they're not free. And they're new technologies. And I suppose for some farmers that's a hurdle in itself. And the cost. It's a huge burden right now.

SCHAEFER: But Klei says there are new federal, state and local pilot programs available to help farmers pay for some of the increased costs of nutrient management. Klei says these, along with education campaigns about new farming techniques, are beginning to bear fruit. So far, efforts to reduce phosphorus are voluntary and the agriculture industry would like to keep it that way. Groups like The Fertilizer Institute, a national trade association, have joined the effort to persuade farmers to change their practices, hoping to avoid regulation. So have non-profits like the Nature Conservancy.

SCHAEFER: Back in Defiance County, farmer Ben Keil says anything that will help him produce a better crop is welcome.

KEIL: People think we don't need farmers, we can go to the store to get our food. Well, it all starts here. It starts right here.

SCHAEFER: While most agencies and studies consider farming practices to be the MAJOR source of Lake Erie algae problems, all sides agree there are other contributors, municipal sewage facilities being one. I’ll have more on algae and urban pollution in my next report tomorrow. For ideastream, I’m Karen Schaefer.