Changing the Paradigm in Michigan’s Saginaw Bay with Public-Private Partnership

The views presented in these blogs are those of the authors.

In the Great Lakes region, all eyes are on water quality and agriculture is front and center in that conversation.

Water quality concerns in the Great Lakes came to the forefront last fall with the shutdown of the Toledo drinking water supply as a result of a harmful algae bloom in Lake Erie. While many factors played a role in that event – invasive species, malfunctioning septic and sewage systems, and climate change – agriculture was also involved.

As an industry, we’re at a critical juncture. We have the opportunity to be part of the solution by being proactive to help improve water quality. Agriculture can – and must – lead on this issue.

We have an opportunity to collaborate with new partners. That’s why the Michigan Agri-Business Association is participating in the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), a new program in the 2014 Farm Bill that boosts public-private collaboration.

Following passage of the Farm Bill, we worked with The Nature Conservancy to develop a bold plan to address water quality issues. Our organizations will work together with private sector companies to promote USDA conservation programs across the Saginaw Bay watershed.

The Saginaw Bay is a critical part of the Great Lakes. This watershed represents the largest in the state of Michigan, covering 5.5 million acres and 22 counties. The ecological health of the Bay and its tributaries is critical to a healthy and vibrant Great Lakes ecosystem.

Again, leveraging the private sector relationships between farmers, retail agronomy companies, and Certified Crop Advisors (CCAs) to boost the implementation of conservation practices will be key to protecting water quality.

The private sector partners, which include virtually every agronomy retail company in the watershed, can help expand farmers’ awareness of Natural Resources Conservation Service programs and support them in incorporating solid agronomic and conservation practices on farms.

The Nature Conservancy will arm CCAs with the science, tools, and information they need to help promote the NRCS programs.

The Nature Conservancy and Michigan State University’s Institute of Water Research will also help partners identify the highest-impact areas in the watershed. We will target conservation practices to those areas where they can have the most benefit and measure the results by monitoring fish health in the region.

Tapping the expertise and experience of the private sector will add capacity that historically has not been involved in conservation work. This means that this RCPP will leverage a federal investment with private sector relationships and expertise, while measuring outcomes – a true win-win for agriculture, conservation, local businesses, farmers, and the environment.

The interest and enthusiasm from the agriculture community is exciting, and demonstrates a real commitment to address these pressing water quality issues, as well as other environmental concerns. This is truly a paradigm shift in production agriculture, the conservation movement, private interest and investment and higher education in working together toward sustainability and environmental protection.

Jim Byrum serves as President of the Michigan Agri-Business Association.