Group of farmers meeting in the back of a pickup truck to discuss 4R certification.
4R Certification Meeting TNC staff and farmers talking in farm field. © Randall L. Schieber

Stories in the Great Lakes

4R Nutrient Certification Program

The 4R program can help solve water quality issues across the Great Lakes basin

Lake Erie is a source of drinking water for millions, home to more than half of all the fish in the Great Lakes, and a draw for both in-state and out-of-state tourists. The Western Lake Erie Basin one of the most productive areas to grow food in the country. While we need fertilizers to produce food, some fertilizer leaves fields and enters our streams and lakes.

Algal blooms in Lake Erie

These lost nutrients are one of the contributors to the rise in harmful algal blooms in our streams and lakes over the last 5 years. These algal blooms lead to increased water treatment costs, reductions in fish production, and poor water quality which has negative impacts on fishing, tourism and citizens that get their drinking water from Lake Erie.

Nutrient Management and Water Quality in Lake Erie Can you imagine being without clean drinking water? For several days in 2014, roughly 500,000 people in the Toledo area didn’t have to. TNC is working with leaders in agriculture, government and more to help prevent harmful algal blooms.

4Rs of Nutrient Stewardship

To help solve the problem of excess nutrients in our waters, the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program was created. The 4R Program, created by the agricultural industry, state agri-business associations, The Nature Conservancy, The Ohio State University, Michigan State University, state farm bureaus, state agencies and others, encourages agricultural nutrient service providers to adopt proven best practices through the 4Rs, which refers to using the Right Source of Nutrients at the Right Rate and Right Time in the Right Place. This voluntary program provides a consistent, recognized standard for nutrient service providers in Indiana, Michigan and Ohio where surrounding waters drain into Lake Erie.

The 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program outlines 41 criteria to be implemented, staggered over a 3-year period. Each criterion will be re-evaluated each year by a private, third party auditor, via an in-person or desk audit, to maintain certification.

There are three sections to the Program, which include:

  1.  Initial training and on-going education
  2. Monitoring of 4R implementation; and
  3. Nutrient recommendations and application.


The 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program is governed and guided by the 11-member Nutrient Stewardship Council, a diverse set of stakeholders from business, government, university and non-governmental sectors with a common goal of maintaining agricultural productivity while also improving the quality of Lake Erie and its contributing watersheds. The Nature Conservancy's Carrie Vollmer-Sanders currently serves as chairperson of the Council.

Evaluation and Research

Ongoing evaluation of the program is planned, including an annual review of the standard and the 3 Ps (people, planet, and profit) of the 4Rs. While environmental impacts of the program will take longer to evaluate, economic and social data will be available in the near term. With the leadership of Dr. Kevin King (researcher at the United States Department of Agriculture's Agriculture Research Service), specific impacts of the adoption of practices associated with 4R Nutrient Stewardship, and the impact of the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program itself are being evaluated based on crop productivity and profitability, water quality, and perceptions of growers, nutrient service providers, and residents in the WLEB. Please visit the 4R website for more information on the impact of this program in the Lake Erie watershed.

Applying the 4R Philosophy of Nutrient Stewardship Applying the 4Rs Philosophy of Nutrient Stewardship -applying the right fertilizer at the right time, in the right amount and at the right place, we can address water quality issues and improve farmers' bottom lines.