Giving Lake Erie a “Bill of Rights” is just the start, Michigan farmers say.
Others may now follow Toledo, Ohio’s move in February to pass a city charter amendment that gives residents guardianship over the lake — or to file lawsuits on behalf of the lake so it can “exist, flourish, and naturally evolve.”
The group behind the ballot measure, Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, has stated its intention to encourage other cities to try similar ballot measures. The concern? That runoff pollution is a major cause of Lake Erie’s algal blooms.
Officially dubbed as the Lake Erie Bill of Rights, or “LEBOR,” there’s a growing concern that similar ballot measures will pop up. Many Michigan farmers worry they could be targeted next.
Doug Darling, a sixth-generation farmer in Monroe County and a member of the Michigan Farm Bureau board of directors, said the potential to be singled out and sued because his farm is in the Western Lake Erie Basin (WLEB) watershed would put an insurmountable financial toll on his family farm.
As the WLEB politics and legal posturing are being played out in the media and courtrooms, Darling likes what he sees less and less.
“Imagine paying for these costs?” said Darling, a partner at Darling Farms LLC, which grows corn, soybeans and wheat on 1,600 acres. “The way they have (the Bill of Rights) written and the vagueness of it are frightening. If this does prevail, any city or county could be implementing a bill of rights, any individual or group in Toledo can sue a corporation not in Toledo, or anybody in the Lake Erie watershed can sue them on behalf of the lake to protect it.
“Farmers are very concerned about that.”
Concerns are also shared between Darling and other Michigan farmers, who say the state’s doing its part to limit phosphorous runoff. For example, he said local farmers are using cover crops, filter strips and variable-rate fertilizer application to reduce nutrient runoff.
A University of Michigan report confirms these findings, noting that total phosphorous levels in the Detroit River declined 37% since 1998 (U-M study: WLEB phosphorus sources not limited to agriculture).
By adopting land-management practices such as adding cover crops and buffer strips, growers can reduce phosphorus loads from agricultural watersheds by 40%, the study notes.
In Ohio, farmer Mark Drewes is challenging the constitutionality of LEBOR by filing a lawsuit against the city of Toledo for threatening “the farm's ability to properly fertilize its fields because it could not guarantee that runoff from fertilization would not enter the Lake Erie watershed.”
Darling said cities and counties are establishing a dangerous precedent by enabling inanimate object rights.
“It’s frightening the perspective consumers have of agriculture,” Darling said. “I lost 50 cents on my bushel already this week. Budgets are tight, so should I buy cover crops, or am I going to make my health insurance or equipment payments?”
Although Darling acknowledges there are different ways to receive funding for sustainability practices — such as through the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service or the Regional Conservation Partnership Program — he said, “It’s difficult to get the money out.”
“Thank God Drewes Farms sued for the way (the ballot) is interpreted,” Darling said.
According to Laurie Isley, a farmer in Palmyra, Mich., there’s this conflict between emotions and facts involved with LEBOR.
“Our concerns are that the info they make about the lake is factual,” said Isley, owner of Sunrise Farms Inc. in Lenawee County, which is part of the Lake Erie watershed. “If you treat a lake as a person, it becomes more emotionally based than factually.”
Isley, who currently serves as president of the Michigan Soybean Promotion Committee, farms roughly 1,100 acres of corn and soybeans with her husband, James. Their farm has been verified through the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP).
Currently, the program helps Michigan farms voluntarily prevent or minimize agricultural pollution and verifies participating farmers who are being stewards of the land. By doing this, Isley said MAEAP-verified farmers are avoiding some of the issues experienced recently by Ohio farmers.
“We are pleased with the MAEAP program that took steps (to address sustainable practices) that came before this issue,” Isley said. “In many cases, we are ahead of the Ohio farmers because we started with some of those programs. …We soil test land every other year. Another use is filter strips, which … reduce runoff from entering into streams.
“We practice conservation tillage and the use of cover crops to keep the nutrients.”
Isley added that farmers are now looking at placing signs labeling when a farm is using filter strips — “so people can see that we are protecting our water quality.”
“We need to get media outlets to tell our story,” she said, “but sometimes the other side is more emotional and has an easily relatable story for the consumer.”
*Editor’s note: Each week, the Michigan Farm News will feature current policy discussions affecting farmers, such as the Lake Erie Bill of Rights, septic regulations, ag labor housing and livestock permitting issues. For additional information on policy discussions, visit Michigan Farm Bureau’s website here.