There is an art to the science, added Gallagher. “As we start to craft these projects, an important element is coming to the farm and building relationships with farmers and the communities to better understand the challenges that they're facing, and determining how we can build solutions that will work on their farm.”
The partnership includes other local organizations, too, including agri-businesses like Star of the West Milling Company, conservation districts, and agricultural input companies like Syngenta.
A win-win solution for agriculture and conservation
Innovative projects and financing models on the farm are being tested as strategies to improve water quality in the Bay. Fales explained that a big conservation benefit of cover crops and other soil health practices is preventing fertilizers and sediment from flowing into the watershed.
“When you get intense rains, especially during times of the year when fields are bare, you can quickly lose soil and nutrients via erosion” she said. “While nutrients are really good for farmers because they help grow plants, they aren’t good for the Saginaw Bay. Once nitrogen and phosphorus make it into the water, they cause excessive plants and algae in the water leading to intense algal blooms and muck washing up on beaches
But this isn’t an insurmountable problem. Fales believes reduced tillage and cover crops are a win-win solution for agriculture and conservation.
Using the Great Lakes Watershed Management System, a web-based spatial conservation tool developed by Michigan State University Institute of Water Research, The Nature Conservancy can estimate the change in soil savings from implementing a given practice and offers incentives to farmers accordingly, based on the estimated environmental benefit.
“The main goal is to build opportunities for farmers to try soil health practices that can be really beneficial for their farm business to build healthy soils that simultaneously have positive environmental outcomes,” said Fales. “TNC can calculate the environmental benefits from practices we know are based in sound science. Partners, like Kellogg, really understand the business side. You can’t have one without the other.”
“Agriculture is extremely important to the communities around Saginaw Bay. It helps to boost the economy, jobs, and people’s livelihoods. The Bay itself is important to our communities, too, and we’re very interested in understanding how water quality reacts to changing practices on the land.”
Milligan agrees. “We're all working towards a common goal here, to have a healthy long-term water supply and healthy soil,” he said.