Confluence is an electronic newsletter co-produced by the University of Arkansas, University of Wisconsin, and a consortium of twelve Land- Grant Universities in states along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. The goal of Confluence is to bring you research-based, unbiased information on agricultural practices and efforts to reduce nutrient losses from agriculture to the Gulf of Mexico.
I walked downslope, beneath deciduous trees newly in bud, above Illinois’ Fox River. I was with Dr. Gerould Wilhelm, a leading botanist at the Morton Arboretum. We moved at a snail’s pace—at each step Gerry stopped to study an emergent plant that was hidden from my view on the forest floor. It had rained the night before, but the soft earth did not soak my soles; rather, the land absorbed moisture like a sponge. My teacher began to instruct me on the nature of healthy soils, which are fed by nutrients from decaying detritus. The soils develop physical properties that filter nutrients down into the roots of flora, feeding the towering tree canopy above. I looked for water in a meandering land depression in front of me—a stream bed—but could find none. “Stream water flows largely below the surface in healthy landscapes, John,” explained Gerry. I took another step and watched as the botanist recognized one more of his friends among the plants that claimed this earth as their home. That 2002 trip with Dr. Wilhelm was my first exploration into the essential subject of soil and water health. Years later, in 2013, I met with Dr. Andrew Ward of The Ohio State University at the Ohio Soil and Water Conservation Society meeting, where we discussed the need for an integrated whole systems approach to agricultural land management. This started us down a path to the Healthy Soils for Healthy Waters initiative, which brings together a community of interested parties to do just that.
I grew up exploring places of natural beauty, such as the ravines that drained bluffs into southern Lake Michigan, but I didn’t begin to appreciate the function of these places until I worked with ecologists at The Nature Conservancy. They were dedicated to understanding the processes that give life to these places, and to protecting them. We worked in forested as well as agricultural landscapes that had been influenced by humans for centuries. I later founded Greenleaf Advisors a sustainability services firm that brings together people working in the natural environment with those working in the built environment. We build bridges across the sectors of science, business, policy, and capital to protect the long-term sustainability of those resources (land, water, material, and energy) that are dependent upon enlightened commercial and industrial practices.
In 2013, Greenleaf joined with The Ohio State University to bring together leaders in research, agribusiness, farming, conservation and government, through an initiative Dr. Ward and I called Healthy Soils for Healthy Waters. This initiative works to protect and restore the healthy functioning of productive agricultural lands while preventing the loss of valuable topsoil and nutrients into waterways. Excess nutrients cause eutrophication and hypoxic “dead zones,” in which dissolved oxygen concentrations are depleted to levels that cannot sustain aquatic life. Soil nutrients affect waterways near and far—they are a primary cause of the Hypoxic Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. They also cause harmful algal blooms such as the blue-green algae that caused the city of Toledo, OH to issue a public drinking water ban as recently as 2014. All states have inland lakes that are impacted by eutrophication and harmful algal bloom. This is a global issue: the World Resource Institute maps 762 coastal areas around the world facing these problems.
Yet researchers and farmers are discovering—and, in some cases, rediscovering—promising solutions. Through the Healthy Soils for Healthy Waters initiative, they are being shared between parties across the Great Lakes and Mississippi Watersheds. Last fall, progressive farmers and crop consultants joined a group of 100 expert researchers, watershed managers and conservationists at the Healthy Soils for Healthy Waters Workshop held in Columbus alongside Ohio’s Annual Farm Science Review. Participants shared more than a dozen case studies in best agricultural land management, targeting reduction of nutrient loadings to waterways. I’ve witnessed these best practices on visits into the fields, where expert crop consultants like Nester Ag manage nutrients in part by taking an array of soil samples, then testing for chemical and physical properties that will define management zones for differential practices. These zones form oblique shapes that look on a map like the amoeba we studied in school. Their boundaries are then used by satellite-directed equipment for precision planting and nutrient application. Nutrients are a farmer’s primary capital, and these million dollar machine systems—moving across landscapes with GPS guidance—help keep the soil and nutrients on the land and out of the waterways.
Though these solutions demonstrate the benefit of bringing cutting-edge technology to farms, one of the best new practices shared at this gathering is actually not a new practice at all. Researchers are excited by the rediscovery of a methodology used by farmers for more than a millennium—the application of gypsum (calcium sulfate) as a soil amendment to improve soil’s physical structure and chemical properties. At The Ohio State University, Dr. Warren Dick is researching the use of gypsum for its beneficial contributions to crop productivity as well as soil and water health. His most recent study on more than a dozen fields in northwest Ohio is demonstrating that gypsum applications can reduce (soluble) phosphorus in tile flow concentrations by 35-62%. Greenleaf’s board member and past head of the USDA National Soil Erosion Laboratory at Purdue, Dr. Darrell Norton, tells us that the promising use of gypsum as a soil amendment is hardly a new idea: Benjamin Franklin is attributed with bringing knowledge of the ancient practice to America from Europe. New and old insights, informed by disciplined research, are enabling the farm community to feed a growing populace in a way that keeps soil and nutrients on the land and out of the waterways. At the Midwest Soil Improvement Symposium in 2013, Dr. David Montgomery (author of “DIRT – the Erosion of Civilizations”) chronicled the decline of societies due to the loss of productive soils from poor land management. It is imperative that we address similar threats today.
To this end, the Healthy Soils for Healthy Waters initiative is cosponsoring two meetings this year (May and December) in association with the multi-agency Hypoxia Task Force (HTF) and SERA-46. In 1997, the HTF was established to understand the causes and effects of eutrophication in the Gulf of Mexico. Membership includes 5 federal agencies and 12 states. Earlier this year, Land Grant Universities in the 12 states represented on the HTF established the Southern Extension and Research Activity (SERA) 46 project. SERA-46 is working in partnership with the HTF to promote effective implementation of science-based approaches to nutrient management and conservation.
This coming December, presentations and updated case studies will be made by leading experts as part of a conference being organized by Dr. Michael Daniels at the University of Arkansas, Rebecca Power at the University of Wisconsin, and the Soil and Water Conservation Society. Experts will share knowledge on projects being studied within numerous watersheds that feed into the Great Lakes and Mississippi River systems. These gatherings are intended to continue alongside the Hypoxia Task Force meetings over the next three years as the region deliberates on making investments into best practices, then measuring and monitoring water quality outcomes at various scales. Support from the industry supply chain, as well as government policies, are needed to advance the full scale development and integration of improved practices within the agricultural community, as informed by sound research.
We at Greenleaf Advisors feel privileged to collaborate with so many leaders who are working together to address one of the most pressing issues of our time – Healthy Soils for Healthy Waters.
John A. Andersen, Jr.
Greenleaf Advisors, LLC – Bridging Enterprises for a Healthy and Sustainable World.