Better water through real farm data

Project analyzes decades of environmental and farming changes to support more fact-based water-quality policy

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In the Great Lakes region, the relationship between farm practices and water quality is complex.

As farmers and industry organizations continue to look for ways to accurately measure and prevent nutrient runoff, a joint project from Ryerson University and the University of Windsor is analyzing historical changes in farming and the wider environment to see how farm practices have influenced water quality over time.

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Called the Agrimodel project, researchers say the goal is to support water-quality measurement methods, as well as policies intended to improve water quality, while maintaining a realistic picture of farming in different parts of the province.

Why it matters: Policies designed to improve water quality must be based on real data, not assumptions, about farm practices and how they have evolved.

As detailed on the project website, this effort is also designed reflect the “tremendous progress” made in Ontario agriculture in the last several decades.

The project, says Christopher Wellen, assistant professor at Ryerson’s department of geography and environmental studies, looks at how farm practices, soil characteristics, and climate have changed since the 1970s — the last time nutrient runoff and water quality issues were a major concern for the Great Lakes, and Lake Erie specifically.

The Agrimodel project will use data from 11 areas across the province.
photo: Agrimodel

Other factors like changes in yield and fertilizer application rates are also being analyzed.

Existing projects like the Great Lakes Agricultural Stewardship Initiative (GLASI), says Wellen, are valuable because they can reveal what it will take to improve water quality and how farmers can help. The point of Agrimodel, conversely, is to determine how historical factors brought us to this point.

“What’s different about other projects, like the Great Lakes Agricultural Stewardship Initiative, is we are trying to understand what has changed, and why,” says Wellen.

“Prescriptions on how to improve water quality could benefit from a descriptive study like Agrimodel. This is an opportunity (to ensure) models representing nutrient loss and water quality are built with real data and not assumptions on what farmers are doing.”

The project process

Data is being collected from 11 areas across southern Ontario, many of which are the same sites analyzed in the 1970s. Farm specific information is gathered by interviewing farmers and by analyzing soil samples from their farms. A portion of soil sampling costs is covered by the researchers.

Participation is voluntary for farmers within the 11 areas.

As a university initiative, Janice Janiec, an agronomist and manager of the Agrimodel project, says she and her colleagues are funded to “produce an analysis” of the data, not to provide individual data from each farm. This means identifying data is not released to any other group, including the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, the government branch funding the project.

“It’s stored with no names attached…. There’s an entire research ethics protocol that governs the project. As soon as it leaves our hands there’s no more connection with the farmer name,” she says.

Farmer perspective critical

As the primary interviewer, Janiec says discussions with the farmers are critical to understanding everyone’s unique agronomic practices and issues. Thus far, she says, surveys of five of the 11 areas have been completed, with 116 farmers participating.

“It’s not how many (farmers) we need, its more the overall area we need to cover in the watershed,” says Janiec. “We’ve had a pretty high response rate. It’s almost half of the people in each watershed.”

Janiec also says a high-level profile of each farmer participant’s area is made available to them. While this information is not useful in making specific on-farm agronomic decisions, she does think the general interest helps encourage participation.

Wellen says the data collection phase of the project should wrap up later next year. While the immense body of data being gathered makes it difficult to predict exactly when definitive conclusions can be drawn, he adds, some insights have already been discovered.

“We’ve been analyzing the phosphorus balance of the soils of two of the watersheds, and in general the fertilization practices are now much closer to replacing only what plants take from the soil, whereas they used to be far in excess of that,” he says.

Revelations regarding larger regional pat- terns are expected to also come later in 2020.

About the author

Contributor

Matt McIntosh

Matt is a freelance writer based between Essex County and Chatham-Kent. He is interested in all things scientific, as well as rock n' roll, hunting and history. He also works with his parents on their sixth-generation family farm.

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