March 13, 2018

(Ankeny, Iowa – March 7, 2018) – As farmers continue preparations for their 2018 crop, newly released research shows that a large majority of those whose fields drain into western Lake Erie are adhering to ag experts’ guidelines for fertilizer rates and application practices. The study concludes, however, that the recommendations themselves should be re-examined to better protect western Lake Erie from pollution resulting from agricultural runoff.

The findings are presented in a special issue of the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation published by the Soil and Water Conservation Society (SWCS).

“Our surveys found that up to 80 percent of farmers are following the most up-to-date guidelines available regarding fertilizer application and general stewardship practices,” says USDA soil scientist Doug Smith, who co-authored an article in the Journal detailing the research.  “But even though the vast majority of growers are applying nutrients at or below recommended levels, the reality is that roughly 70 percent of the phosphorous entering Lake Erie is from streams and rivers, where agriculture is often the dominant land use.  So we have to acknowledge that the agronomic data and information on which farmers are basing their fertilizer application decisions may not be giving enough consideration to the importance of minimizing nutrient runoff into western Lake Erie.”

Public concern over nonpoint source agricultural pollution of western Lake Erie came to a head in the summer of 2014, when the City of Toledo prohibited human consumption of drinking water from the lake due to elevated levels of a toxin produced by bacteria that thrive in algae that results from excessive presence of phosphorous in the water.

“The researchers believe that reconsideration of existing nutrient recommendations and wider adoption by farmers of the most effective agronomic practices can bring about a sustainable agricultural system in the western Lake Erie region,” SWCS CEO Clare Lindahl says. “The role of SWCS is to provide the forum where researchers, extension specialists, crop advisors and growers can engage in the collaboration needed to maintain farm productivity while preserving environmental resources.”

Smith points out that fertilizer recommendations currently provided to farmers in the western Lake Erie region were developed by researchers 40 or more years ago. “Since then, there have been drastic changes in factors like tillage methods, crop varieties and nutrient formulations that alter phosphorous cycling in soil and water,” Smith continues. “The science that drives fertilization practices needs to catch up.  The scientific community and the agricultural industry must ask whether  current  practices are in step with the goal of achieving optimum balance between  economic outcomes and preserving environmental quality.”     


With more than 3000 members around the world, the Soil and Water Conservation Society (SWCS) is a nonprofit scientific and educational organization that serves as an advocate for conservation professionals and for science-based conservation practice, programs, and policy.

The SWCS mission is to foster the science and art of natural resource conservation.  We work to discover, develop, implement and constantly improve conservation practices and systems that sustain the productive capacity of the land while protecting environmental quality.

We pursue our mission through a combination of research, education and advocacy aimed at promoting state-of-the-art conservation practices and science-based conservation policy.

For More Information:

Clare Lindahl
Soil and Water Conservation Society
515-289-2331, ext.113

Douglas R. Smith
USDA Agricultural Research Service; Temple, TX

Kevin King
USDA Agricultural Research Service; Columbus, OH 

« Back