Sharing a Vision, Working Together, Saving Lake Erie

Carrie Vollmer-Sanders

Carrie Vollmer-Sanders is being honored as a Next Generation of Conservation Leaders Champion of Change.

On average, farmers have 40 chances in their lifetime to grow a crop. Each year we make small adjustments based on past years’ experiences, current weather conditions and new technology. Multi-generational farm families like mine pass along what we’ve learned. We work with our parents and sometimes parents’ parents to make sure that farming can be a livelihood for our children and our children’s children. When my dad makes a change to the equipment he uses, my husband and I make the same change, because we farm together. When we add technology to farm smarter, it also helps my dad farm smarter. We make these changes to our family farm business after discussions with our trusted consultants, like our soil, seed, chemical, and fertilizer advisers.

Here in the Western Lake Erie Basin, harmful algal blooms is a water quality topic of immense concern. Farmers have taken a number of actions to reduce fertilizer runoff, but too much is still leaving our fields and entering streams and lakes. This lost fertilizer, mainly phosphorus, is one of the main contributors to these harmful algal blooms.

When I began working for The Nature Conservancy over three years ago, we started by talking with farmers and their most trusted advisers about how we could make sure that fertilizer grows crops, not algae.

When a small group of individuals — representing agri-business, research and The Nature Conservancy— began talking about solutions we were not bound by a plan, but we had the same basic end goal: grow enough food and have clean water to drink for the 9 billion people on the planet in 2050. With the teamwork of the agricultural, government, research and conservation communities in the Lake Erie basin, we think we have found some solutions that will achieve lasting conservation, because it is good business for farmers and for Lake Erie.

The 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program, developed by the 4R Advisory Committee and now managed by the Nutrient Stewardship Council, was created to be a consistent, recognized program highlighting agricultural retailers’ nutrient stewardship efforts. The program ensures that social, environmental and economic 4R nutrient management sustainability goals (applying the Right source of fertilizer at the Right rate at the Right time, in the Right amount) are adopted, which will lead to long term positive impacts on water quality in Lake Erie. This voluntary, private third party evaluation of the farmer’s fertilizer and crop advisers recognizes their efforts to improve water quality.

This solution would not have happened without the shared vision of so many in agriculture and conservation working together with an open mind and determined heart. Being honored with the White House Champion of Change award is humbling, especially knowing that our progress is due to having a dedicated, solutions-oriented, and visionary team.

Only when key stakeholders agree that water quality is a top priority for maintaining the local economy, culture, and biodiversity of the area, will we achieve lasting conservation for all life in Lake Erie. Visit nature.org/wleb to learn more about our work and partnerships to improve water quality in the Western Lake Erie Basin. Like our work in this watershed, The Nature Conservancy works throughout the world to protect Earth’s fresh water for the future through, science-based, practical solutions.

Carrie Vollmer-Sanders is the Western Lake Erie Basin Project Director for The Nature Conservancy and chairs the Nutrient Stewardship Council. She and her family grow grain in Northwest Ohio.

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