Local farmer collaborations are conserving soil, land, and water quality

For most of its history HRWC has focused on addressing water quality problems caused by urban and suburban development. The migration and settlement of thousands of people on land that was previously sparsely and transiently occupied led to numerous changes to the watershed, such as stream flow alteration, pollution, etc., which have been well-documented. Settlement also resulted in the clearing and alteration of the land for agricultural production. Farming has many known impacts on water resources, from draining wetlands to altering stream channels and nutrient runoff. Many farmers also work to improve soil health, minimize or eliminate nutrient runoff, and make their farms more productive and less risky in the process.

The Huron River watershed is notable for its diverse landscape. Indigenous people settled along the river and took up agriculture in the fertile floodplains and some uplands. The earliest European settlements were also self-sustaining agrarian communities. Over time, as more people moved into the watershed, more forest and grasslands were cleared, and wetlands drained to create productive land to feed the growing population. Today, the most agriculturally productive regions of the watershed are in Arms and Boyden Creeks (49% agriculture), Mill Creek (48%), Davis Creek (41%), and Portage Creek (33%). Farms in the watershed are generally smaller than those south of the Huron River in lower Michigan and Ohio, and many remain family-owned and operated. While corn and soybeans are the most prominent crops, many farmers grow wheat, hay, and specialty crops like

Economic and Climate Change Challenges

Farm enterprises are challenged on several fronts, in the Huron River watershed and beyond. Agricultural success in Michigan is largely dependent on the weather. The weather impacts timing of planting and harvest as well as decisions on what to plant in different locations on the landscape. These decisions need to be made weeks or months in advance, well outside the scope of local weather forecasts. Farmers also face pressure from volatile global commodity markets where much of the supply of corn and soybeans are traded.  However, specialty crop markets allow for more price stability and the inclusion of consumer values (such as organic, non-GMO, free-range, etc.) based on farmland stewardship.

Farmers are acutely experiencing the impacts of changing weather patterns due to climate change. In the Great Lakes region (as has been covered in other articles), individual storm events have become more intense, even as drought conditions are persisting for longer periods.  Further, changing climate has increased both insect and disease pressure challenging both decision-making and profitability.

Finally, farm businesses are being financially pressured by the sprawl of development. Expanding suburbs and exurbs consume valuable farmland and further isolate remaining farms from neighboring farms that they can collaborate with to share expensive equipment, excess seed and other inputs, and beneficial wildlife such as pollinators. Further, the expectations of new residents on the farming fringe often conflict with activities associated with life on a farm, leading to conflict.

Conservation and Partnerships

Many local farmers are managing these challenges by focusing on improving soil health, diversifying markets they sell to, and participating in multiple initiatives focused on farmland preservation and water quality improvements. Local government funds aimed to preserve farmland and natural areas have helped farmers and other rural landowners protect over 18,000 acres of land in Washtenaw County alone over the last 20 years.  Local food activities are also much more prevalent in the region compared to much of the Midwest. These cultural elements combined with southeast Michigan’s natural characteristics — fertile soil, abundant water, a temperate climate, and infrequent natural disasters combine to make the Huron River watershed a prime example of a region in which urban and rural communities can co-exist and benefit from one another.

Washtenaw County showing protected lands as of 2000 and 2020. Greater than 18,000 acres were protected in publicly or privately funded agreements over the 20-year period.
Washtenaw County showing protected lands as of 2000 and 2020. Greater than 18,000 acres were protected in publicly or privately funded agreements over the 20-year period.

Prospects for the future of farmlands in the watershed may also be bright. A group of conservation organizations, or Regional Conservation Partnership Program, that includes HRWC was recently awarded $7.4 million in federal funding through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). With matching funds from local organizations, $15 million will be available to preserve additional farmland, help farmers engage in water quality protections, and improve wildlife habitat. HRWC is matching funds through the Whole Farms for Clean Water program, which encourages farmers to implement practices that result in both improved profitability and reduced nutrient runoff to waterbodies. Farmers are paid for the amount of nutrients that they save from running off into local waterways, effectively giving them a double benefit by reducing the need for fertilizer purchase. Many local farmers are already engaged in practices to reduce nutrient runoff, including the use of cover crops, targeted fertilizer application, and stream buffering practices through programs of the NRCS, Farm Services Agency, and Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program.

Many farmers participating in these programs have found that improving soil health, diversifying crops, and reducing fertilizer application allows then to earn a greater profit, while reducing the risks of soil erosion and nutrient runoff to our local waterways. HRWC is proud to work with these “agri-innovators” to protect watershed health and enjoy local produce at markets and restaurants.

Upcoming Agronomist Talk

Improving Profitability Through Land Stewardship: Lessons from Washtenaw County

Saturday, December 11, 2021, 10-11:30am at Saline Township Hall – REGISTER. A live recording will also be available on FACEBOOK.

Ron Doetch, founder of Solutions in the Land and agronomist for the Huron River Watershed Council’s Whole Farms for Clean Water project will share his experience from a long career in the agriculture industry and his most recent ten years of working with the farming community in Washtenaw County. His talk will explore industry trends and how agricultural producers can transition to a long-term outlook that promotes conservation and profit. Hosted by HRWC, Washtenaw Conservation District and River Raisin Watershed Council.

This blog post was originally published September 1st in the Huron River Report, Fall 2021.