Using Fertilizer To Grow Crops, Not Algae

Carrie Vollmer-Sanders traveled to Washington, D.C. to be honored by President Barack Obama as part of the White House “Champions of Change” initiative. This program honors “ordinary Americans… doing extraordinary things in their communities.”

Carrie, the Conservancy’s Western Lake Erie Basin Project Director, works in Indiana, Michigan and Ohio to build relationships in the farm community toward a goal of reducing agricultural runoff into Lake Erie. She lives in northwest Ohio with her husband, Ryan, and their two boys, ages 6 & 7.

“We’ve been working together for the past three years to find solutions to the problem of fertilizer runoff to help keep Lake Erie clean.”

-Carrie Vollmer-Sanders


Congratulations. Surprised?

Vollmer-Sanders :

Surprised, for sure, and also honored and humbled, because what I do is a small piece of this much larger project that involves farmers, agricultural businesses, university researchers, and other environmental groups. We’ve been working together for the past three years to find solutions to the problem of fertilizer runoff to help keep Lake Erie clean. We’ve had a lot of financial support from the Joyce Foundation, the Great Lakes Protection Fund, the Mosaic Foundation, and The Fertilizer Institute, along with fertilizer retailers like The Andersons and Morral Companies.


What’s the connection between farmers and nature?

Vollmer-Sanders :

Lake Erie was famous in the ‘60s and ‘70s for its pollution, but many of those problems were solved, and in the ‘80s and ‘90s, sport fishing and lakeshore tourism really took off. In the last few years, though, massive algae blooms have been growing on the lake each summer, covering the surface with a neon green, paint-like substance that even slows down boats moving through it. Under the right conditions, it can make people sick, and when the algae dies it sucks the oxygen out of the water and fish die.

Research tells us the problem is caused by too much phosphorus in the water and that much of the phosphorus comes from fertilizer that washes off farm fields and ends up in the lake.


You missed something important because you were called to the White House. What is it?

Vollmer-Sanders :

The “Champions of Change” event was the same day as the kickoff event for the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program, an industry-led, voluntary certification program that specifically targets crop advisers and fertilizer retailers. We’ve been anticipating this day for a long time and it is exciting to see the program get off the ground. It is a tribute to the 4R Advisory Committee—that has worked countless hours to develop the program—to have the White House honor the program the same day it was launched. This certification program is good business for farmers as well as water quality—not just for the fish in Lake Erie but also for the people who rely on the lake and its tributaries for drinking water.


Okay, what are the 4 Rs?

Vollmer-Sanders :

The 4R principles were developed by the agriculture industry and land grant universities and have been around a while—they refer to using the right nutrient at the right rate in the right place at the right time. The Nature Conservancy encourages the use of these principles in our work with agriculture around the country. The program just launched in the western Lake Erie basin is a third-party certification program for crop advisers and fertilizer retailers. Like FSC [Forest Stewardship Council] certification for forest products, this program will use independent, third-party auditors to certify advisers who can demonstrate that they not only understand the 4R principles but follow them.


Crop advisors?

Vollmer-Sanders :

Most of the fertilizer applied on cropland in Ohio, Michigan and Indiana is applied under the guidance of commercial crop advisers and retailers. They advise farmers on how and when to apply the fertilizers. They sell the fertilizer to the farmers. And they apply the fertilizers. The agricultural community felt that by reaching these companies, we can have a much bigger impact than by trying to reach individual farmers.

Once a retailer or advisor has become certified it is proof they are doing all they can to protect to Lake Erie because they are using fertilizer to grow crops—not algae.


What are some of the other ways that farmers and conservationists are working together to protect the fresh water?

Vollmer-Sanders :

Two major issues lead to excess phosphorus in Lake Erie. We hope the 4R program helps with the first, which involves excess phosphorus draining off the fields. But an equally important source of the problem is the man-made drainage system that sheds water from farm fields as quickly as possible into tributaries of Lake Erie, carrying phosphorus and soil with it.

We need to maintain the drainage on farms, and slow the flow of the water leaving the fields so that soil and fertilizer have a chance to settle out of the water. The Nature Conservancy has been working toward this goal in the Lake Erie watershed for more than two decades. We’ve worked to encourage changes to the drainage system to slow the water coming off the fields with grassed waterways, alternative ditch designs, and tile drainage water management. And, we’ve helped to restore wetlands along Lake Erie which help filter the phosphorus from the runoff while creating migratory bird habitat at the same time. We’re also encouraging year-round crops (the planting of “cover crops” after the corn or beans are harvested in the fall), and the use of equipment that allows farmers to be more precise in applying fertilizer.


What does your family think??

Vollmer-Sanders :

They’re excited, too. My husband and my mom and dad came to Washington with me. My husband and I both come from multi-generation farm families. We grow corn, soybeans and wheat with my dad and mom on our farm in northwest Ohio. And we had a farm meeting last week at our house to go over our soil testing, talk about equipment and the grain market, and discuss our nutrient management plans. We all listened to what ideas each other had. Dad said last week he thought what we were doing with the 4Rs was a good idea. I am where I am because my parents instilled in me a love for farming, conservation, and working together. Not to mention the three most important principles to live by: please, thank you and a smile.


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