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Water: Nonpoint Source Success Stories

Michigan: Section 319 Success Stories, Vol. III

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Innovative Farmers of Michigan:
Blending Farm Profitability and Water Quality Protection

Jim LeCureux
Michigan State University Extension
Tuscola County
Primary Source of Pollution:

agriculture (cropland)
Primary NPS Pollutants:



Project Activities:

conservation tillage

reduced soil erosion (70 percent less from water and 60 percent less from wind)

The Saginaw Bay watershed is the largest watershed in Michigan, covering more than 8,700 square miles. The water quality of the bay is affected by sediment, nutrients, and pesticide inputs from runoff and wind erosion. Agriculture is the major land use in the Eastern Coastal Basin of the watershed (Huron and Tuscola Counties and part of Bay County), representing 95 percent of the land area. The major crops are dry beans, sugar beets, corn, and wheat.

The Innovative Farmers of Michigan is a group of agricultural producers, supported by more than 60 partners representing the agricultural industry, lenders, equipment companies, commodity groups, and federal, state, and local agencies. The group's two primary objectives are reducing the amount of sediment entering the Saginaw Bay and altering farming practices to reduce nutrient and pesticide runoff while retaining profitability for the farmer. "All my fields drain to large ditches, to larger ditches, and eventually to Saginaw Bay," says Pat Sheridan, Tuscola Innovative Farmers, "and I don't want my soil in the bay."

So Sheridan joined the Innovative Farmers of Michigan, which was organized in 1994 in Huron, Tuscola, and Sanilac Counties. Members pay a $100 annual fee, entitling them to membership in the Michigan Agricultural Stewardship Association and subscriptions to No-Till Farmer and Conservation Digest magazines. In 1996 the Michigan State University Extension-Huron County received a section 319 grant of $71,863 for a 3-year Innovative Farmers project. The Innovative Farmers aimed to reduce soil erosion, improve soil health, and increase family farm income by using reduced tillage, cover crops, and a totally integrated system.


Crop residue forms a protective layer on the field that prevents soil from washing away during rainstorms.

Confronting traditional farming practices

Before the Innovative Farmers, reduced-tillage corn and soybean cropping systems had been successfully used throughout the Midwest. Michigan farmers, however, were reluctant to use high-residue cropping systems for beans and sugar beets because such high-value crops would still make fall-spring tillage profitable. In addition, many farmers in the area assumed that it isn't possible to warm the soil in the spring, prepare a good seed bed in heavier soils, and achieve adequate weed control without tilling in the fall and the following spring.

The key to the Innovative Farmers' success is that rather than relying on research and information provided by other sources, the group designed and conducted the studies themselves. In one of the first studies undertaken by the group, 14 producers collected 127 water samples from their tile outlets. Concentrations and flow rates were used to determine the extent of nutrients and the associated dollar loss from their fields. This activity helped producers better understand the nutrient and soil interactions, as well as the impacts on water quality.


The emergence of dry beans is enhanced by using a spoke closing wheel on the planter.

Valuable findings

Studies conducted by the Innovative Farmers yielded many valuable findings for area farmers. Conservation tillage did not reduce yields of sugar beets, corn, and dry beans when compared to conventional tillage. In fact, corn yields significantly increased at one of the demonstration sites. Farmers also learned that the soil's capacity to supply nitrogen to a growing crop increases with conservation tillage. Athough phosphorus applications ceased for 6 years, the soil fertility levels did not decrease.

At the end of the project, the water holding capacity and water infiltration rates were also higher for the limited-tillage sites. Conservation tillage reduced the potential for soil erosion from water by up to 70 percent and from wind by up to 60 percent, as compared to conventional tillage.

These results are making a difference. Several farmers in the area have converted their operations to zone till in the past 2 years. (In zone till, only a small area is tilled at planting. The result is a conventional seedbed in the immediate seed zone while the rest of the field remains untilled and covered with residue to promote soil conservation.) Innovative Farmers members also report the increasing use of the chisel tillage system and cover crops by their neighbors. As these systems are used on a wider scale, others will adopt them as they see the success of fellow farmers. That is just what the Innovative Farmers hoped to accomplish.


Clover is inserted into corn crops to provide more cover and reduce erosion over the winter.

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Little Rabbit River Watershed Project:
One-to-One Approach Wins Landowners' Support


AnneMarie Chavez
Allegan Conservation District
Primary Source of Pollution:

agriculture (unrestricted livestock access, plowing)
Primary NPS Pollutants:


Project Activities:

agricultural BMPs (fencing, streambank stabilization, filter strip, sediment detention, wetland restoration)

reduction of 19,852 tons of sediment, 19,706 pounds of phosphorus, and 39,321 pounds of nitrogen

The Little Rabbit River Watershed Project demonstrates the effectiveness of community-based watershed planning in addressing water quality issues. In 1995, through the efforts of local leaders and a broad conservation partnership, a section 319 watershed grant of $380,936 was awarded to the Allegan Conservation District. This grant began a 5-year program that built a team of proactive stakeholders to direct project activities, develop a watershed management plan, and implement best management practices (BMPs) to protect water quality.

The 30,850-acre Little Rabbit River watershed is in southwest Michigan, primarily in the northern section of Allegan County. A small portion lies in Byron Township in Southern Kent County. The Little Rabbit River flows southwesterly to the Rabbit River, a tributary of the Kalamazoo River. The dominant land use in the watershed is agriculture. Sediment, nutrients, and high flow are adversely affecting the Little Rabbit. Unrestricted livestock access, plowing up to the edge of the watercourse, and conventional fall plowing were commonly found throughout the watershed.


The Little Rabbit River watershed project worked to gain the support of local landowners.

Partners and funding sources

The project's Steering Committee consisted of a broad range of active participants, including the County Drain Commissioner, County Road Commission, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Farm Service Agency, Michigan State University Extension, County Board of Commissioners, Dorr Township Parks and Recreation, other township officials, West Michigan Regional Planning Agency, and local residents and agricultural producers. In addition to 319 funding, other significant sources of funding included the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Michigan's Groundwater Stewardship Program.

The objectives of the project were to improve water quality by reducing the amount of sediment and nutrients entering surface water and promoting farmland preservation and controlled development. The Steering Committee decided that one key to the project's success would be to engage area landowners. The Steering Committee exceeded its goal of contacting 50 landowners, reaching 64 landowners to discuss their water quality issues.

A number of best management practices (BMPs) were installed as a result of the project, including

  • Implementation of 3,000 acres of mulch-till and no-till.
  • Installation of more than 12,000 linear feet of exclusion fencing.
  • Installation of four stream crossings and a watering facility.
  • 190 linear feet of streambank stabilization.
  • Installation of 18 acres of filter strips.
  • Addition of five animal waste storage facilities.
  • Installation of two sediment detention and two erosion control structures.
  • Restoration of more than 9 acres of wetlands.


A watershed logo, displayed on this cooperator's sign, created an identity for the watershed project.

Successful reduction of pollutants

The quantity of sediment and nutrients entering the Little Rabbit River was substantially reduced with the installation of water quality-protective BMPs. Pollution reductions were calculated for all erosion control BMPs. The total amount of pollutants prevented from entering the Little Rabbit River during the 3 years of project implementation was 19,852 tons of sediment, 19,706 pounds of phosphorus, and 39,321 pounds of nitrogen.

In addition, the awareness of water quality issues in the community increased. The local residents stated that the project newsletter was a primary source of conservation information. A watershed logo was developed for use on T-shirts, hats, and watershed cooperator signs, which created an identity for the watershed project.

The success of the project can be attributed largely to the emphasis on one-to-one meetings that built trust one person at a time. The watershed coordinator went to breakfast where the farmers ate, using the opportunity to interact in a relaxed social setting. The true partnership of the agencies involved was also instrumental in the project's success. Other agencies that had rapport with the agricultural community promoted the Little Rabbit River Watershed Project, too, helping to build credibility and trust.

Although the section 319 portion of the Little Rabbit River Watershed Project is complete, water quality improvement and protection efforts are continuing. EQIP funds are available for agricultural BMP implementation. Watershed planning and protection efforts have expanded to the Rabbit River watershed and adjoining watersheds (Macatawa, Gun River) as a direct result of the positive response from the local community.


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