Doug Darling has implemented no-till practices, cover crops and filter strips to reduce phosphorus in the water on his farm in Monroe County. Photo credit: Heather Nash

As a sixth-generation farmer, Doug Darling has joined conservationists, scientists, government agencies and the private sector to address water quality issues in the Western Lake Erie Basin.

Widespread algal blooms and other water issues prompted the creation of Michigan Cleaner Lake Erie through Action and Research (MI CLEAR). The MI CLEAR partnership formed in 2017 with the goal of bringing these diverse groups together to tackle the issue head on.

Darling says farmers have a stake in being good stewards of the environment. After all, they depend on the land, weather and water to remain economically viable. 

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His family’s farm, Darling Farms, has operated for 186 years in Monroe County, an area targeted as a source of phosphorus and other nutrients entering the River Raisin watershed and Lake Erie.

“People don’t understand what farmers do and how high tech we’ve gotten to try to survive as farmers,” Darling says. “A lot of farmers in the region have really stepped up.”

Photo credit: Heather Nash

Complex Problems, Collaborative Effort

The MI CLEAR partnership includes farmers, agricultural and environmental leaders, universities, conservationists, businesses, tourism and economic development interests, and more.

The various stakeholders meet regularly to discuss what each group is doing, support research and conservation practices, visit water management projects, and share ideas and successes.

“One of the purposes of MI CLEAR is to get people to work together who don’t typically work together,” says Jim Johnson, Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development Environmental Stewardship Division director. “The intent is for people to have an intelligent conversation, to understand what everyone is doing, to actually understand where the gaps are in programs, and to identify research needs.”

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There has been a lot of finger-pointing over the causes of the algal blooms in Lake Erie, and those involved in MI CLEAR understand the issue is complex, Johnson says. Fertilizer runoff from agriculture and lawns, faulty septic systems, wastewater treatment plants, industrial pollution, loss of wetlands, extreme rain events, a shallow Lake Erie, warmer water and invasive zebra mussels are all contributing to the problem.

Photo credit: Heather Nash

“That is part of why MI CLEAR made sense,” Johnson says. “The problem can’t be narrowed down to one thing; it involves many, many things.”

David Thompson, Monroe County drain commissioner, got involved in MI CLEAR during his term as president of the Michigan Association of County Drain Commissioners. The group realizes it is going to take a targeted and collaborative effort to arrive at a comprehensive solution.

Farmers Help Reduce Nutrients

Farmers have achieved a goal of nearly 40% reduction in phosphorus entering the watershed through a variety of measures.

On Darling’s farm, they have implemented no-till practices, use cover crops to capture nutrients, and added filter strips on 49 acres of the 1,600-acre farm. There is a cost-share with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to install the filter strips and a 10-year contract that no crops will be planted on those acres.

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Darling Farms; Photo credit: Heather Nash

Darling Farms is among more than 5,250 verifications through the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP). The voluntary program helps farms of all sizes prevent or minimize pollution risks, including reducing phosphorus and other chemical runoff. MAEAP educates farmers on the “four Rs” when applying fertilizer: right place, right amount, right type and right time.

Additionally, drain officials in Monroe, Washtenaw and Saginaw counties have received grant funding to help farmers put in filter strips, which provide a buffer to reduce sediment and nutrients entering drain systems, and research best practices on drain projects.

“Michigan has a chance to be leaders here and MI CLEAR is paving the way,” Thompson says. “We have to change the way we think. We have to change the way we do business. We all have to be moving toward clean water.”

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