Clouds in summer heavenly sky over lake The true value of clean freshwater is crystal clear, and Michigan farmers and producers are taking huge strides in protecting, and even healing, this precious resource. Located in Monroe County, along the Stony Creek and River Raisin watershed in the Western Lake Erie Basin, the six-generations strong Darling Farms operation holds conservation at its roots. The farm, like many others in the state, is engaged in conservation practices protecting water, including Lake Erie, and other natural resources. “It’s good for the environment, it’s good for the farm and it’s good for the community,” says Doug Darling, who is a partner at the farm with his father.

Assuring Protection

Darling Farms is verified through the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP), which is a voluntary, innovative and proactive program helping farms of all sizes prevent or minimize agricultural pollution risks. The program, offered through the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, is one of the most proactive ways for the state’s farmers to make such efforts, MAEAP Manager Joe Kelpinski says.

“We know a farm that is MAEAP-verified is using the best management practices currently available in agriculture to protect the environment,” he says. This includes help with identifying soil erosion, creating sensitive area maps and using tools that reduce runoff. As no two farms are identical, MAEAP enables farmers to choose the conservation methods that work best for their operations. The program uses four verification systems: farmstead, cropping, livestock, and the newly added forest, wetlands and habitats. “We’ve seen a substantial number of farmers getting involved. They understand the value and need for it,” Kelpinski says.

Lake Erie conservation [INFOGRAPHIC]

Daring Darling Efforts

Darling Farms is verified in two of MAEAP’s verification systems, farmstead and cropping, which means the farm has implemented environmentally sound practices. The systems help the Darlings work to protect groundwater and surface water and prevent water resource contamination, among other efforts.

The farm uses filter strips, which are planted between a farm and surface water, such as lakes and rivers, to provide a buffer and protect water and soil quality. “We have 46 acres of filter strips throughout our operation,” says Darling, who has found that “filter strips are probably the easiest way to impact runoff.” The strips trap and filter runoff, preventing possible pollutants, such as sediment, from reaching the surface water. Filter strips are both practical and environmentally friendly. “This is probably the easiest way to make an impact, especially if the land has any topography issues,” Darling says. “If you’ve installed the filter strips properly, you don’t have to do much to keep them maintained. It requires the least amount of management for how much impact it has.” Though more costly, tile gates and other water flow management devices can also be strategically positioned to prevent loss of soil nutrients. For over 20 years, Darling Farms has predominately followed a no-till policy and plants cover crops to help instill nutrients, add organic matter and prevent soil erosion. Additionally, regular soil testing and proper nutrient management reduces excess phosphorous runoff while making farming more profitable. MAEAP-verified operations perform soil testing at a minimum of every three years, Darling says. The farm also helps safeguard the environment by mainly using liquid fertilizer, not using fertilizer spreaders and also by side-dressing crops. Darling Farms has not only pursued MAEAP verification, but also the Conservation Security Program and Conservation Reserve Program, which is administered by the USDA’s Farm Service Agency.
Dayton Darling, left, and his father, Doug, stand in a field of no-till wheat at Darling Farms in Monroe County. The no-till technique holds nutrients in the soil and reduces the need for fertilizer.

Dayton Darling, left, and his father, Doug, stand in a field of no-till wheat at Darling Farms in Monroe County. The no-till technique holds nutrients in the soil and reduces the need for fertilizer.

All Across Michigan

Kelpinski says more than 3,000 farms are verified through MAEAP as of November 2015. Additionally, at least 10,000 Michigan farms have started the verification process. Farmers understand the need to improve, protect and heal water resources like Lake Erie , which has suffered from algal infestation, and its surrounding watersheds. Local farmers and research communities are focused on being part of the solution and have already made significant strides through proven conservation practices. U.S. Geological Survey data released in September 2015 indicated algal bloom-fueling phosphorus dropped 49 percent in the River Raisin since 2008, which in turn reduces the amount flowing into the Western Lake Erie Basin.

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Kelpinski believes that the “lake will heal itself” as more farms like Darling Farms implement these best management practices. “I’m very positive about that,” he says.


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