How farmers can turn the tide on Lake Erie's toxic algae problem

Karen Chapman

This post was first published on EDF’s Growing Returns.

It’s been one year since a massive algae bloom in Lake Erie contaminated the drinking water of some 500,000 Ohio residents.

Since that time, we’ve seen an increase in legislative actions and governmental commitments to reduce fertilizer runoff. Still, the harmful algae that showed up last summer has bloomed again, with this year’s event on track to be even worse than in 2014 – also as the level of toxic algae may fluctuate from one day to the next.

Catastrophic spring and early summer rains waterlogged farm fields in Ohio and Indiana and caused widespread flooding, sending untold quantities of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers into Lake Erie.

Of course, the algae problem was decades in the making and will likely take decades to reverse. Passing legislation does not lead to immediate improvement – and, as always, legislation is only one ingredient in the soup.

An approach that gives farmers  means to reduce the runoff that causes the algae bloom – and support from people they trust – are key to bringing lasting relief to Lake Erie and communities in the region.

A new way to help farms and environment

Farmers need more support and guidance to be able to make changes on their lands. And they need to know that these practices won’t reduce their yields.

That’s why a growing number of farmers are now tapping into SUSTAIN™, a platform that offers practical help. It was created by United Suppliers, a cooperative of 560 locally owned agricultural retailers with some 2,500 locations nationwide, and in coordination with Environmental Defense Fund.

United Suppliers provides agricultural retailers with SUSTAIN training on the best tools and practices for reducing runoff and increasing soil health – but it also focuses on maintaining productivity. The platform reaches farmers through their trusted United Suppliers ag retail advisors, field staff who consult with farmers on everything from crop protection and seeds to nutrients, and, now, also common-sense tools that help them manage fertilizers more sustainably.

That makes it a very logical and effective way to get the conservation messages and nutrient management tools out there much more broadly. It’s an opportunity to make lasting change.

Farmers who visit authorized SUSTAIN retail locations get the latest available advice on how to make sustainability an everyday practice. And they have access to proven, field-tested products and techniques to improve nutrient use efficiency and soil health – and protect their yields.

By the end of 2014, more than 100 sales employees were authorized as SUSTAIN advisors and another 100 will be authorized by the end of 2015 across Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, Illinois, Minnesota and Ohio.

United Suppliers goal: To have 10 million acres enrolled in the program by 2020.

Lake Erie’s recovery will take time, of course. But we’re looking at a solution that may go farther than we can even imagine today.

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