Stories in Michigan

Soil Health in Saginaw Bay

The sun rises over a sugar beet field in the Saginaw Valley.
Saginaw Valley sunrise The sun rises over a sugar beet field in the Saginaw Valley. © Jason Whalen/Fauna Creative


Agriculture is built on the productivity of our lands and waters. Michigan's 10 million acres of farmland generate $13 billion each year in products from corn to meat to dairy and provide 22 percent of the state's employment. About a quarter of that land—and some of its most fertile—is located in the Saginaw Bay, Michigan’s largest watershed. Here, we have the state’s highest concentration of prime farmland, rich soils that allow for more diverse crop rotations and higher yields than many other areas of the Midwest.

However, this abundance does not make soil and nutrient loss in runoff—a challenged shared by farms across the Midwest and beyond—any less of a threat. Without measures to keep soil and nutrients on the land and out of waterways, especially during extreme weather events, the continued financial stability and resource resilience of vital farmlands is at risk.

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) seeks to ensure the sustainability of the food and water resources on which we all depend, by protecting soil health and clean water. Drawing on our strengths as a global organization of over 3,000 employees, including 400 scientists, we work closely with agricultural communities to implement on -farm conservation practices with proven benefits to soil health and infiltration. These practices, especially when used in tandem, insulate yield from drought, harsh winters and storms year after year.

Here in the Saginaw Bay watershed, one of the Great Lakes region’s most important agricultural areas, TNC is achieving significant and measurable impact in collaboration with farmers—the champions of soil health—who are applying these practices in their own fields, demonstrating their benefits and providing essential feedback and data to advance our common goal of a thriving and resilient Saginaw Valley. 

A field being worked on a farm in Michigan's thumb.
Michigan Farm Country A field being worked on a farm in Michigan's thumb. © Fauna Creative

Celebrating Soil Health Heroes

Each year, Michigan farms produce $13 billion worth of products, from corn to meat to dairy, and provide 22 percent of the state’s employment. Agriculture is big business and changing land management practices can be costly and filled with uncertainty.

We're recognizing the extraordinary achievements of Saginaw Valley farmers who work hard to protect water quality and soil health. With nearly half of Michigan's largest watershed in agricultural production, keeping soil and nutrients on the land and out of area waterways is not only vital to the people and species that live here, but to our boating, fishing, and tourist industries.  

Aerial view of farmland around Saginaw Bay, Michigan, where TNC is working with farmers and companies to reduce runoff in the Great Lakes.
Saginaw Bay aerial farmland Aerial view of farmland around Saginaw Bay, Michigan, where TNC is working with farmers and companies to reduce runoff in the Great Lakes. © Adam Stoltman

This Year's Honorees

On December 10, 2019, TNC held the second Saginaw Bay Agricultural Awards ceremony to say thank you to farmers and agribusiness professionals who have been willing to take a chance, and to honor those making an impact on soil health. More than 150 people attended to see the following individuals receive their awards:

  • Conservation Excellence Award: Contributor
    Method Products, PBC, San Francisco, California for work in Huron County
  • Conservation Excellence Award: Practitioner
    Joel Leland, Saginaw Conservation District, Saginaw
  • Conservation Excellence Award: Agribusiness
    Justin Krick, Star of the West Milling Company, Frankenmuth
  • Conservation Newcomer Award
    Nick Weisenberger, Weisenberger Farms, LLC, Chesaning
  • Conservation Veteran Award
    Jason Haag, Unionville      
  • Conservation Innovation Award
    Ryan and Melissa Shaw, SKS Farm, Marlette   
  • Conservation Impact Award
    Jeffery Krohn, Krohn Acres, LLC, Owendale

From 2015 to 2019, TNC’s soil health and nutrients strategy in Saginaw Bay Watershed has changed practices across 67,400 acres, resulting in:

  • 140 farms cooperating;
  • 21,600 pounds of phosphorus kept out of waterways;
  • more than 5,000 verified tons of sediment reduction; and
  • 760 million liters of groundwater replenishment.

“Being able to work with groups like the USDA or TNC makes a difference,” said Nick Weisenberg, award winner in the Newcomer category. “Being a fourth-generation farmer is important to me and we have definitely learned that a cover crop option is cheap tillage, cheaper soil management and provides benefits to keep the farm operation running for the next generation.”

The award recipients were based on nominations sent from local community members and chosen by the Awards Selection Committee, which included representatives from Michigan Association of Conservation Districts, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Farm Bureau, Michigan Agri-Business Association, Michigan Department of Agricultural and Rural Development and the Delta Institute.

Steve Tait of Caseville, winner of the first-ever Conservation Impact Award from The Nature Conservancy.
SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE Steve Tait uses no-till and cover crops to improve nutrient usage and efficiency on his farm, keeping excess sediment runoff out of local waterways. © Fauna Creative

Partnering to Implement Precision Conservation

Since the launch of the Saginaw Bay Watershed Conservation Partnership in 2015, TNC has worked hand-in-hand with the agricultural community to implement programs designed to help farmers retain productive soil and nutrients on their lands and keep local waterways healthy.

This unique collaboration consists of more than 30 conservation organizations, agronomy retailers, higher education institutions, commodity groups, agribusinesses and state and federal agencies.

Using science-based modeling to link conservation practices to ecological indicators like fish health, scientists were able to determine what practices should be applied where, and in what amounts, to achieve soil health goals. With nine major rivers and hundreds of tributaries flowing past farm land toward Lake Huron, this field-specific approach to precision conservation is critical to understanding where conservation practices might do the most good.

The next step was to work with crop advisors and their farm clients to quantify soil retention and environmental benefits that would be achieved by implementing a variety of conservation practices.

Using a decision support tool like the Great Lakes Watershed Management System allows farmers to see exactly what actions they can take to improve their soil health, eliminating a costly process of trial-and-error. Where applicable, TNC will also help farmers apply for conservation programs to implement those practices. 


Learn more

What's Coming Up?

We have a Soil Health Lunch and Learn coming up this January. More events are added all the time. We hope to see you soon!