OFA Commentary: Survey shows Great Lakes water quality top of mind with Ontario farmers

In its second annual survey of farmers in southwestern Ontario, the Thames River Phosphorus Reduction Collaborative (PRC) set out to gauge awareness of the organization’s efforts to reduce agricultural phosphorus losses and improve water quality in the Great Lakes. The survey was conducted in early 2020 by farmers in the Thames River basin and surrounding areas.

Survey results showed the awareness level is high among farmers, with 77% indicating they were familiar with the PRC’s research and water quality projects in the Lake Erie area. Lake Erie provides an important source of water for drinking, crop irrigation, fishing, recreation, and tourism. The PRC is focused on developing and testing practical technologies to help farmers reduce phosphorus runoff from their fields and address phosphorus entering waterways from local municipalities.

The Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) is a key partner in the Collaborative supporting the PRC to manage water quality trials in southwestern Ontario Thames River waterway to find effective tools that could be deployed by farmers to improve waters leaving their farms.

The PRC is managing seven test sites again this year, testing a variety of products and materials that could allow for the recovery of phosphorus in drainage systems and reduce phosphorus loses from fields. The results of these testing sites could be used in developing an overall strategy for managing surface and tile waters leaving our farms, and in turn, help prevent toxic algal blooms in the western basin of Lake Erie and surrounding waterbodies.

Many of these test sites are located on Ontario farms and operate on one-year cycles. Sorbent materials are collected each spring for analysis. Earlier this month, the PRC hosted a webinar to update farmers and industry stakeholders on best practices and lessons learned from the 2019-2020 test sites. These on-the-ground projects were aimed at reducing phosphorus from municipal and agricultural water systems. Presentations of the day are also posted to the PRC website.

Checking in with farmers about this important issue and raising awareness of the Thames River PRC was a focus of the 2020 survey. Most nutrients are lost from fields in the winter and spring, and 90% of survey participants answered that they were aware of the seasonality in runoff and nutrient loss. More than three quarters also indicated they understood that it didn’t matter how far away from the Thames River they were located, agricultural runoff from their fields could enter the watershed.

Survey respondents also demonstrated an understanding of the correlation between phosphorus loss from field runoff and algae blooms in Lake Erie. Farms are not the only source of excess phosphorus in our waterways, and survey participants showed they understood cities and municipalities to be contributors as well.

The Thames River PRC was encouraged to see more than 80% of respondents understood PRC’s role and ongoing work to reduce phosphorus and focus on water quality in the Great Lakes. Survey responses noted their work with farmers and municipalities to develop and test technologies to intercept and extract phosphorus from agricultural runoff and to give farmers, governments and industry a better understanding of the practicality of these new technologies.

The PRC is encouraged by farmer survey results, but work continues to monitor test sites, research new technologies, educate and raise awareness about nutrient and phosphorus loss into Ontario’s waterways. To learn more about the Thames River PRC and their ongoing projects, please visit www.thamesriverprc.com.

Mark Reusser is vice-president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture

Mark Reusser