Great Lakes

Great Lakes Agriculture

The Nature Conservancy and partners are working with farmers to "grow clean water" in the Great Lakes.

Combine at sunset.
Combine at sunset Combine at sunset. © Randall L. Schieber

The Great Lakes region is known for its bountiful and diverse agricultural production. Its fertile lands and waters provide ideal conditions for corn, soybeans and hay crops, as well as 15% of the country’s dairy products. Between the production of crops and livestock, the region produces $14.5 billion in annual agricultural sales.

But the use of these lands and waters have come at a cost. In many places, there has been a decrease in water quality, loss of essential fish and wildlife habitat, and an increase of toxic algae blooms.  As demand for agricultural products continues to grow, so will the pressures facing the Great Lakes.

A farmer walks through a field of cover crops on a cloudy day.
Cover Crops A farmer walks through his cover crops. © Michael David-Lorne Jordan/David-Lorne Photographic

Conservation Agricultural Practices

The fertile soils and the abundant waters of the Great Lakes region make it ideal for agriculture. Development and intensification of the region’s farmland has altered how water interacts with the landscape. Artificial drainage for agriculture has changed the way water flows over the land, washing sediments into our rivers and lakes. Nutrients applied to fertilize crops but that go unutilized drain into tributaries that feed the Great Lakes, causing undesirable impacts such as algal blooms.

Changes to the landscape like increased sediment and nutrient runoff into Great Lakes waterways threaten not only local plant, fish and wildlife habitat, but the same water resource that drives many of the region’s businesses and industries.

By  implementing conservation farming practices—such as cover crops, restored wetlands and buffer strips—farmers can keep sediment and nutrients out of our rivers, lakes and streams and improve water quality for both people and nature.

Buffer Strips

It’s a tiny green border around a soybean field, or perhaps it’s a band of perennial plants lining a drainage ditch. To the naked eye, buffer strips may not look like much. But they provide valuable benefits to people, plants and wildlife.

Buffer strips are exactly what their name implies: strips of land that form a buffer between farm fields and creeks, rivers and streams.  The deep roots of the vegetation that grows in a buffer strip slows water and absorbs sediment and excess nutrients from fertilizers. These plants grow year-round and are strategically placed to stop run-off from farm fields before it enters waterways.

But that’s not the only benefit buffer strips provide. They also create habitat for fish and wildlife, help stabilize stream banks, and improve air quality.

Two-Stage Ditches

Water, when confined to a channel such as a stream or ditch, has the potential to cause great destruction. With too much water moving through an undersized area of land, there is no where for it to go but rush out its barriers.

Bank erosion, scouring, and flooding are good indicators that there is problem with how water is drained from the soil. Researchers have been working on a type of in-stream restoration called the two-stage ditch that may help relieve these problems.

Researchers have developed a drainage design by observing the natural processes of stable streams and rivers that could relieve the erosion, scouring and flooding that conventional ditches may cause. This design, known as the two-stage ditch, is a drainage channel that will benefit both agriculture and the environment.

The concept of the two-stage ditch is simple. The design incorporates a floodplain zone, called benches, into the ditch by removing the ditch banks roughly 2-3 feet above the bottom for a width of about 10 feet on each side. This allows the water to have more area to spread out on and decreases the velocity - or energy - of the water. The flow of that water is a function of the velocity and area of the water. And since flow can be considered as the amount of water moving through the ditch, the design has actually increased the amount of water that the ditch can process by constructing the benches, or floodplain area. This not only improves the water quality, but also improves the biological conditions of the ditches where this is located.

The benefits of a two-stage ditch over the typical agricultural ditch include both improved drainage function and ecological function. The two-stage design improves ditch stability by reducing water flow and the need for maintenance, saving both labor and money. It also has the potential to create and maintain better habitat conditions here in Indiana and the waters into which our drains flow into such as the Gulf of Mexico.

Cover Crops

Between the harvesting of last season’s crop and the planting of the next, it has been common for farm fields to be left barren or covered with the remnants of last year’s crop. When barren fields are left exposed to the elements during the winter months, and with the melt of spring, loose soil and nutrients can be carried away to run off into streams, rivers and lakes.

Farmers are increasingly realizing the benefits of cover crops, typically barley, oats, rye or alfalfa, which in addition to improving the health of the farmer’s soil, also help keep soil in the field and out of our freshwater resources. Typically planted in the late summer, they cover fields and stabilize soil with their roots during the winter months--but that’s not all. They also replenish important nutrients, and they can help control pests and weeds.

As the cover crops decompose in the field, they also add beneficial organic matter to the land that further increases soil health.

Conservation Tillage

The mental image of farmers in a field with their horses and plows is an iconic one. As the horse has been replaced with the tractor, many farmers are replacing their plows with more modern and less intensive tillage practices such as no-till.

No-till is a form of tillage that minimally disturbs the soil. Essentially, this means farmers allow the previous crop’s residue, which is organic matter like corn stalks and leaves, to stay on the surface of field, rather than plowing it underneath before the next crop’s seeds are sown. When this organic matter from the previous year is left on the field, it provides a wide range of benefits: it stores carbon, improves soil quality, slows run off, provides habitat for wildlife and reduces erosion.

No-till farming practices can be combined with other methods such as buffer strips, giving farmers a variety of ways to protect the lands and waters of the Great Lakes.  

Nutrient Management Over 400,000 people in Ohio went without water when a nutrient-fueled algal bloom erupted in Lake Erie in 2014.


The Nature Conservancy and partners are working together to develop solutions that can protect our lands and waters and support agricultural production at the same time. But for these efforts to be effective,  we need measurable conservation goals that everyone can work towards, and we need to implement these goals at the scale the Great Lakes require.

Great Lakes Watershed Ecological Sustainability (GLWESS) Strategy

Farmers, agricultural suppliers, retailers, crop advisors and other community stakeholders are collaborating with The Nature Conservancy, Michigan State University, and Limnotech to develop the Great Lakes Watershed Ecological Sustainability (GLWESS) Strategy, which is supported by funding from the Great Lakes Protection Fund, to provide much-needed conservation goals, tools, and outcomes for the Great lakes region.

In the past, conservation practices have not been implemented with specific water quality goals or benchmarks in mind. Farmers and others realize the need for environmental goals that will unify stakeholders across the region in their efforts to "grow clean water." They also know that to achieve these goals, they’ll need new tools to measure successes and failures, as well as the most efficient and cost effective ways to implement new practices. The final piece of this shift is a movement to scale: not only raising the acreage of conservation practices, but increasing the number and breadth of stakeholders involved in the process, so that the entire agricultural supply chain can play a role in setting and reaching these new water quality standards. We need to not only increase the number of farms involved in growing clean water—we need to get other members of the agricultural supply chain involved, too. Through programs like the 4R certification process and the Saginaw Bay RCPP Project, members of the agricultural supply chain are involved in sustainable solutions for the Great Lakes.

Scientific Modeling

Agricultural conservation practices help us grow clean water. But the question we need to answer is: How much conservation is enough? How do we know how many acres of  buffer strips and cover crops  are needed to make a  difference in the health of our rivers and lakes?

A good way to gauge improvements in water quality is by measuring the health of local fish communities. If fish are thriving, then the water is clean and the aquatic food chain is healthy.

The Nature Conservancy and partners have developed a suite of computer models, tools, and scientific analyses that help link farming conservation practices to the health of local fish, which can help stakeholders understand what “dose” of conservation is needed to keep Great Lakes waters healthy.

The Nature Conservancy and other partners are also collaborating with Michigan State University’s Institute of Water Research to develop online decision tools that enable land managers and others to strategically target conservation practices to areas that offer the greatest return on conservation investment. The tools also allow stakeholders throughout the region to track progress towards implementation goals over time.

One of these tools is the Great Lakes Watershed Management System (GLWMS), which can measure nutrient and sediment loads at the scale of a field or a watershed, and the resulting changes from the implementation of conservation practices.

For sustainable farming practices to be effective, we need tangible goals everyone can work towards.