Helping farmers fight ecological dead zones

Farmers embrace precise use of fertilizer and creating habitat buffers

tractor working the land

"We can't be farming and destroying a Great Lake," says fourth-generation Ohio farmer Todd Hesterman. "That doesn't make sense."

With partners like Hesterman, we are collaborating with communities of farmers in critical watersheds who are working hard to use precise data on how much fertilizer their crops need.

By getting this balance right, it reduces the amount of excess fertilizer and sediment that can run off and create algae-filled "dead zones" and pollute drinking water.

It also helps the farmers' bottom line, as they spend less money on fertilizer when they know precisely how much they need.

Healing Lake Erie

In Hesterman's part of Ohio, some 5 million tons of topsoil erode every year into streams that feed Lake Erie. This sediment, along with algae blooms created by nutrient-rich runoff, threaten an $8 billion tourism and fishing industry, and drinking water for 11 million people.

Similar problems occur on farmland along the Mississippi River that eventually spills into the Gulf of Mexico, and in the country's largest estuary, the Chesapeake Bay.

Ohio farmer Todd Hesterman with his father

Ohio farmer Todd Hesterman with his father.

More precise data can help

Much of this is not the fault of the farmers. Managing nutrients is hard. Without knowing exactly how much rain the land will get every day, a farmer cannot gauge exactly how much fertilizer to apply, or when.

Most farmers rely on general guidelines or get nutrient recommendations from crop advisors affiliated with fertilizer retailers, whose pay depends largely on how much fertilizer they sell. The result: About 50% of the fertilizer applied nationwide is not taken up by crops.

But it doesn't have to be this way. "We help farmers understand tools like corn stalk tests, which show what percentage of nitrogen they applied to a crop was actually utilized," says Karen Chapman, EDF's Great Lakes director.

Rebuilding critical habitat

Another problem is the the destruction of wetlands and tree buffers across the Corn Belt to increase crop yields. The loss of those buffers has impaired the land's ability to absorb nutrients. These vanishing set-asides also reduce erosion and flooding and serve as vital habitat for birds, bugs and bats, which help farmers by pollinating and controlling pests.

The good news? Carefully recreating wetlands and buffers can help capture 80% of the nitrogen runoff draining from Corn Belt farms.

Nitrogen Runoff

When too much fertilizer is applied to crops, the excess runs off and pollutes waterways.

The 'tractor' network

We know farmers can learn a lot from other farmers, so we teamed up with a number of partners to expand this group, known as the Adapt Network.

This rapidly growing, multi-state coalition helps farmers collect data about conditions in their fields to determine how much fertilizer their crops really need.

"We encourage them to share best practices at local meetings," said Chapman. "The farmers themselves are our best ambassadors."

The farmers are often motivated as much by their sense of calling as by their aversion to waste. "I'm not a radical environmentalist, but I believe we have to be good stewards of what is entrusted to us," says Matt Young, a dairy farmer in Lancaster County, PA.

EDF's Clean Water Network Map

Highlighted areas represent states where EDF has farming partnerships

In 2013, the Adapt Network, and a similar network run by the Iowa Soybean Association called the On Farm Network, includes almost 1,000 farmers working nearly 1 million acres in 12 states, spanning the critical watersheds of the Mississippi, Chesapeake Bay, Great Lakes and North Carolina.

These farmers have cut fertilizer use by 25% on average, saving $16 per acre, without reducing yields.

And that's just the beginning. "Our goal is to influence how farmers manage nutrients nationally," says Suzy Friedman, EDF's Director of Agricultural Sustainability.

"We need to make precise use of fertilizer the rule instead of the exception. And we need to rebuild wetlands and buffers while allowing farmers to meet food and fiber demands. Then we can make a real difference in water quality in the United States," says Friedman.

How we use partnerships

To solve tough problems, we work with everyone from private equity fund managers to moms to Midwestern farmers.

More about our partnerships »

Ecosystems: Down on the farm

Farm policy expert Suzy Friedman partners with farmers to help them use more precise quantities of fertilizer.