Farm Runoff in U.S. Waters Has Hit Crisis Levels. Are Farmers Ready to Change?

Some farmers and lawmakers across rural America are getting serious about preventing nitrogen and phosphorous pollution. Will it be enough to avert a catastrophe in our rivers and oceans?


For the last two decades, Bill Kellogg hasn’t told many people about the approach he uses to growing 5,000 acres of corn and soybeans in Hardin County, Ohio.

The conventional farmer grows cover crops, tills less often than most of his neighbors, applies fertilizer to his fields 4-6 inches underground, and has planted several pollinator patches on his acreage—all in an effort to improve his soil and cut down on the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous that runs off his land in the winter.

When the Ohio Farm Bureau first asked him to talk about these practices as part of a multimedia website designed to educate farmers on how to protect their watersheds, he initially declined. “We’ve tried to stay under the radar, and just do our thing in our corner of the world,” he says, acknowledging that other farmers in his area will often talk at the local coffee shop whenever someone tries something new. “I’m not a coffee shop guy,” he added.

“It was out of my comfort zone to give up our information.” However, after long talks with his son, Shane, they decided it was time to share what they do. Kellogg fears that if farmers in this region don’t make progress to improve water quality soon, they’ll face government regulations.

In a video on the demo farm website, Kellogg explains: “We need to be proactive in showing our community and neighbors that we’re serious about taking care of the world around us.” The website provides 360-degree aerial tours of three farms in the Blanchard River watershed and gives users an intimate view of their fields. Kellogg and his son have given talks to around 1,400 people and another 1,000 visitors have stopped by the farm.

“If I didn’t have Shane pushing me on the technology end, I don’t know whether I’d be doing some of these things,” he says. “I know we’ve opened some peoples’ eyes.”

Across farm country, local and state governments, federal regulatory agencies, and farm groups are searching for lasting strategies to keep farm nutrients out waterways. But despite a robust combination of incentives or “carrots,” such as subsidies and cost-sharing programs, and increasingly, regulation, the problem remains dire.

The Size of the Problem

Kellogg is all too aware that many more eyes need to be opened to realize the Ohio Phosphorous Task Force’s goal of reducing excess phosphorous flowing off farms by 40 percent—the amount needed to reduce or eliminate algal blooms in Lake Erie. The Blanchard River is one of the waterways delivering farm runoff to the lake, where it fuels toxic algal blooms.

As they do throughout the Corn Belt, Ohio row crop farmers—notably of corn and soy—typically apply fertilizer on their fields in fall. When winter precipitation arrives, the system of tile drainage pipes used on 46 percent of farm fields provides a perfect pathway for fertilizer runoff to enter waterways. In fact, Lake Erie’s 2014 algae bloom left more than 400,000 residents of Toledo, Ohio without drinking water for three days.

Nitrogen pollution, in the form of dead zones, algal blooms, and contaminated drinking water, has gotten to be such a dire problem globally that the five-year, $60 million International Nitrogen Management System—a research effort patterned after the International Panel on Climate Change—was launched in 2016 to tackle the issue. In the U.S. alone, billions so far have been spent to encourage farmers to voluntarily adopt practices to improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico—yet neither region has seen significant change.

Algal blooms in Lake Erie on August 14, 2017. Credit: Aerial Associates Photography, Inc./Zachary Haslick

State and federal level governments have introduced a variety of cost-share incentive policies and other “carrots” to convince farmers to adopt conservation approaches, but few have successfully yielded the kinds of voluntary adoption necessary to make a lasting dent in the pollution. The 2008 U.S. Hypoxia Action plan, a national strategy to reduce the Gulf of Mexico’s annual dead zone to 5,000 square kilometers, had an ambitious goal of reducing nitrogen and phosphorous amounts by 45 percent by 2015, a deadline extended to 2035 amid dismal progress. The 2017 dead zone was the largest ever, at 15,032 square kilometers.

When carrots don’t work, governments are increasingly turning to the “stick” of regulation. Minnesota’s governor just proposed the state’s first-ever regulation on farmers’ fertilizer use to protect drinking water. After 12 years spent relying on voluntary efforts in the Chesapeake Bay region, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finally resorted, in 2010, to imposing a total maximum daily load (TMDL), of nitrogen and phosphorous from six of the Bay’s surrounding states. In Pennsylvania, compliance has been “painful,” says Jim Shortle, director of the Center for Nutrient Pollution Solutions at Pennsylvania State University. The state has the most farmers (in excess of 30,000) of the six and, “it got the worst grade on agricultural oversight on the EPA 2016 report card,” he says.

The threat of regulation—a concern raised in a recent farmer survey—has been a powerful motivator for some farmers to start changing their practices, says Kellogg.

Farm pollution is a problem in just about every state (here’s a national map of communities whose drinking water has been threatened from the Environmental Working Group). But most state agencies struggle to reach the majority of farmers, who are working within a system that prioritizes crop yield. As Bill Kellogg notes, reluctantly, there are two kinds of farmers: those who practice conservation with the future in mind and those farmers who are only in the here and now for profit.

Self-starters like Kellogg are perhaps the best sign of hope. “We’re beginning to see farmers say they want to be leaders, rather than be forced into actions by regulations,” says Shortle. And that’s welcome news. “The most effective pressure will come from fellow farmers,” he says. Rebecca Power, director of the North Central Regional Water Network at the University of Wisconsin, agrees. She says she has seen “a fundamental cultural change” begin to take effect among farmers.

Still, change is slow considering the formidable obstacles in the path. Chiefly, ongoing research on conservation practices can sometimes yield conflicting findings about what will work in particular regions, sowing enough uncertainty that landowners avoid taking action. To that end, there is a scramble to get enough technical skill in place to help farmers identify and adopt the best options for their circumstances.

But it’s unclear whether increased social pressure and technical skills will be enough to reach the magnitude of change many agree is necessary. “As long as we rely on voluntary action, it is going to be an uphill battle,” says Shortle. “The low-hanging fruit is all picked,” says Shortle. “[Progress] is going to cost money.”

Roger Wolf, director of environment programs and services for the Iowa Soybean Association, admits that the federal government has largely failed in its attempts to get states to address water quality issues caused by nutrient pollution. A big part of the challenge at this moment is coming to grips with the scope and scale of the management solutions necessary to move the needle, he says.

Mixed Messages

Of all the conservation practices being championed, farmers have perhaps most readily focused on precision fertilizer management, a strategy that combines soil tests and GPS to generate highly calibrated soil maps to help identify which farm fields require more or less nitrogen. Yet studies used to develop the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy show this solution decreases nutrient pollution by about 10 percent, so clearly other strategies will also be necessary to reach that 40 percent reduction target.

Nitrogen stabilizers, which farmers apply directly to the soil alongside the fertilizer, are also being developed and sold as a cheap, easy solution. But once they wear off and soil bacteria bounce back, nitrogen will continue to run off, says Sarah Carlson, strategic initiatives director at Practical Farmers of Iowa. The competing, mixed messages frustrate Carlson, who argues that the key is “having a living root [in the soil] all the time to keep nutrients from leaking out of the system.” Banishing bare soil is the basis for the group’s new T-shirt slogan—“Don’t Farm Naked, Plant Cover Crops.”

Carlson argues that the data show cover crops, grown between and often alongside cash crops, are the most cost-effective conservation practice. Plants like cereal rye or winter wheat are best at soaking up nutrients, leading to as much as a 30-40 percent reduction in nitrogen loss, on a large scale.

Field day participants share soil health and pollution-reduction strategies on Nathan Anderson’s farm.

Growing cover crops also builds valuable soil health, providing other potential economic benefits such as reduced pest pressures and improved water retention. Edge-of-field practices such as wetlands, buffer zones, and bioreactors, which filter nitrogen out of runoff using wood chips, have also been pointed to as solutions. But they may not offer a direct benefit and be pretty costly to install, says Matt Helmers, an agricultural engineer at Iowa State University.

Programs to help offset the cost of cover crops have also flourished in the region. Seven years ago, Iowa only had roughly 10,000 acres of cost-shared cover crops, says Sean McMahon, executive director of the Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance. In 2017, he says, the state boasted 760,000 acres of cover crops, about half of which were funded by cost-share programs. And yet that number represents about 3.3 percent of the total farm acreage in the state. “In order to meet the goals of the nutrient reduction strategy, we probably need between 12 and 17 million acres of cover crops—between 50-70 percent,” says McMahon.

Weather extremes are making cover crops more appealing, while simultaneously harder to execute. They offer some farmers a way to reduce soil erosion during downpours and floods, but heavy rainfall can also make it difficult to realize their benefits. Put the crop in too late and it may not germinate; plow it under too early and it won’t be there to help keep soil on the ground

One thing is certain—farmers don’t like uncertainty.

While some say cover crops will save the world, they come with complex nutrient management dynamics to untangle, says Robyn Wilson, a behavioral decision scientist at Ohio State University. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) agricultural engineer Kevin King has shown that cover crops, such as rye, can significantly reduce nitrogen losses in subsurface tile drainage, but had no effect on phosphorous. Yet not all cover crops act the same. Recent studies have shown that cover crops that die naturally in winter—such as some radishes—could even increase dissolved phosphorous concentrations in surface runoff.

Wilson’s research suggests there are additional, legitimate reasons farmers aren’t adopting some conservation practices more effectively. For example, subsurface fertilizer placement would help maintain the benefits of reduced tillage and reduce nutrient runoff, but it costs twice as much to apply and the equipment can be expensive and hard to find. A heavy-handed regulatory approach may help achieve faster progress, says Wilson, “but unless we fix some of these problems, we’ll get pushback.”

It’s also easy for uncertainty to translate into apathy. To adopt a new practice, farmers need to believe it will be effective, says Wilson. “Motivated farmers are looking for solutions and we [researchers] haven’t convinced them we know what those are,” he adds.

Getting information to farmers remains a hurdle. “There are not enough boots on the ground to deliver conservation information,” says McMahon. While National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) staff and extension agents do a good deal of that work, their numbers are often very limited, and farmers have come to rely on private-sector crop advisors for support as well. Wolf argues that arming fertilizer reps with a better understanding of conservation practices could play an important role, however, since state and federal agencies are chronically budget-constrained.

“The ag retailers are the dominant way farmers get information,” says Carlson, adding, “and they overwhelmingly are not giving the right recommendations for growers of cover crops.” Carlson has been arming growers with information to share with fertilizer representatives in a bid to change the system from the bottom up.

Online Resources Help Fill in the Gaps

It’s a problem increasingly being tackled online as well. A growing group of no-till and cover crop practitioners share images and videos on YouTube and Twitter. And Practical Farmers of Iowa has a series of YouTube videos, called Rotationally Raised, which describe how to successfully grow diverse crop rotations.

Blanchard Demo Farms Project lead Aaron Heilers says the goal of web-based outreach is to offer data and personal experiences to farmers who may not attend traditional Field Day events that are miles away from their own farms. “Farmers want to see the data, [and know] that these things are working,” he says.

One of three demonstration farms that users can “tour” on the Blanchard Farms Demonstration site.

Many early adopters often find their own ways to minimize risks when trying something new. Nathan Anderson, an Iowa farmer who grows corn, soybeans, and small grains in addition to beef cattle, uses cover crops on nearly every acre. The cattle made it easier, he says, to get through the learning curve with cover crops because the cost spent on cover crop seed could be rationalized as feed for the animals. “We reduced our risk by having cattle that could eat our mistakes,” he says.

There’s a cultural dimension as well. For example, Anderson’s first season of cover crop-grazing cattle was a source of curiosity among neighboring farmers. “Knowing that people are talking about what you are doing can be intimidating,” says Anderson, although it didn’t hamper his experimentation. As Anderson and others worked out the kinks, neighbors who may have once been dismissive of the added management time and risk associated with conservation practices are increasingly interested. “Farmers that I never thought would be asking me for cover crop advice are asking those questions,” he adds.

Building New Strategies from Data

To realize results on the ground, a number of conservation professionals are turning to data-visualization tools to identify places where shifting practices could have the most impact and help farmers weigh the potential impact of those practices. To that end, a number of state agencies are developing tools to capitalize on the fact that most farmers need to “see it to believe it.”

In Pennsylvania, the Chesapeake Conservancy uses a high-resolution digital mapping tool to prioritize areas where restoring nitrogen-filtering buffers along waterways offer the greatest “bang for the buck,” says Carly Dean, the nonprofit’s project manager. Working together with property owners, they explore ways to improve both habitat and income opportunities. “It’s definitely a new chapter in the conservation story,” she adds.

Farmer Nate Anderson shares his cover-cropping and grazing strategies with field day visitors.

In areas pursuing a watershed-level strategy, such as Iowa, wetlands can be put in key hot spots to reduce nitrate inputs to downstream waters—and visualization tools will help set goals for their placement on a broader scale, says Iowa State’s Helmers. Wetlands can serve as a holding tank, slowly filtering incoming nutrient-rich surface water.

“It’s not the same old information, simply repackaged,” says Ohio State’s Wilson of data visualization. It can be powerful to run scenarios or role play to find the most effective strategies for landowners—something, she imagines, will have more of an impact.

Wolf says government agencies, farmers, conservation organizations, as well as industry, are all working hard to innovate. Last fall, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship tried a novel approach: farmers who plant cover crops receive a $5 per acre discount on their crop insurance over the next three years.

Nate Anderson jumped at the chance to enroll in the program. “A number of [cover] cropping systems may only yield a $50 return,” he says, “a $5 per acre discount just added 10 percent to a bottom line.”

Companies Push for Progress

While farmers like Anderson explore marketing options that help him get a premium price for his practices, companies—increasingly motivated to ensure sustainable supply chains—are also getting behind a number of nascent ventures to reduce nitrogen pollution.

The Midwest Row Crop Cooperative is a coalition of top companies and conservation groups—from Cargill to the Nature Conservancy—testing projects to improve and accelerate conservation practices in Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska. The goal is to incentivize farmers to withstand the cost, risk, and learning curves that currently keep them from changing their practices.

Food giant Unilever is involved with two cost-share programs overseen by Carlson at Practical Farmers of Iowa. The first focuses on Hellmann’s mayonnaise soybean oil supply chain. It aims to get 850 soy growers to adopt cover crops—in an area where they’re rarely grown—over the next five years by offsetting costs and arming farmers with a detailed plan and a network of their peers from whom they can learn.

Last month, Carlson launched a similar program with Cargill and Pepsi to encourage 150 corn suppliers to adopt cover crops. She says the approach—which lowers farmer costs from $25 to $15 per acre on average—is gaining momentum throughout the region. “We provide the recipe for how to make it easy to get farmers to sign up,” says Carlson, who says one of the key ingredients is the requirement that farmers go to field-day events and talk to experienced cover crop farmers.

The days of soft-selling farmers on conservation practices may be over. There is some concern that funding to support voluntary adoption efforts may dry up. Wilson just received EPA funding to determine how cost-effective the billions spent in the Great Lakes have been. And Trump’s budget dramatically cut several conservation programs, Anderson points out. He believes that cost-share programs have a role to play in farmer education and transition—but he also thinks they should require greater accountability and not go on indefinitely.

While it’s not yet clear the role regulations may play, it is clear that policymakers are running out of patience. “We need better outcomes for the dollars we spend,” says Penn State’s Shortle. “While regulation can be very effective, agriculture is expensive and difficult to regulate.” It’s imperative that we find approaches that are collaborative, cost-effective, and pay for performance, he adds.

Kellogg thinks that farmers will be perceived to be making a difference. Whether or not it will happen fast enough is another question entirely.

This story is part of a year-long series about the underreported agriculture stories in our rural communities.

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  1. Tuesday, May 8th, 2018
    Great article! I appreciate the notion that farmers are seeking leadership from within, to spur sustainable practices and minimize pollutant loading. I hope this spreads like weeds. (oops!)
  2. Thursday, May 10th, 2018
    Pretty much says it all: A big part of the challenge at this moment is coming to grips with the scope and scale of the management solutions necessary to move the needle.

    The challenge answer - https://www.amazon.com/EcoCommerce-101-ecological-dimension-economy/dp/193509842X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1485042969&sr=1-1&keywords=ecocommerce
  3. Junius Berger
    Friday, May 11th, 2018
    Nothing mentioned about the role of Conservation Districts providing technical resources and cost-share to reduce run-off from farms. The nationwide network of districts is a major resource for this effort. Also, conservation efforts in the Chesapeake Bay watershed are showing reduction of nutrients, contrary to the writer's assertion.