Farmer-Led Networks being established in Michigan’s Saginaw Bay area to Increase Nutrient Management Activities

By Lois Wolfson, Connor Crank and Glenn O’Neil, Institute of Water Research, Michigan State University

Agricultural lands make up over 45% of Michigan’s Saginaw River watershed’s land area. Increasing the adoption of nutrient management practices by farmers in this watershed is a major goal of a project aimed at improving water quality in the watershed and Lake Huron.  Nutrient runoff, particularly phosphorus, has been identified as a major contributor to water quality degradation in the watershed. Excessive phosphorus concentrations to water bodies result in excessive plant and algal growth, including harmful algal blooms.

In a new Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funded project called “Accelerating Adoption of Nutrient Management through Farmer-led Outreach and Education,” a team of Michigan Institute of Water Research researchers, MSU Extension staff and many other partners are working to establish a network of farmers in the Saginaw River watershed to encourage them to connect with other farmers in a setting where they feel comfortable discussing nutrient management and conservation efforts; and improve water quality through cost-share programs that reduce agricultural field runoff.

The first step in the process of forming these farmer networks has been to recruit farmer leaders, who are responsible for leading the overall efforts in their localized groups. Through utilizing the close relationships of the partnering organizations with local farmers, the team has confirmed nine farmer leaders from four localized groups. Enrollment of farmers in the cost-share programs will begin this summer with $100,000 available through the grant. The goal is to increase the number of acres enrolled in nutrient management by 7800 to 32,000 acres and decrease phosphorus runoff from agricultural fields by 900 to 13,000 pounds.

“We want to help break down any communication barriers surrounding nutrient management and agricultural conservation in the hope that those farmer networks and conversations persist long after the project team has stepped back from the administration of the project,” said Connor Crank, project coordinator.

“We believe that farmer networks have enormous potential to improve water quality and decrease nutrient runoff in their watersheds. We are confident that our agriculturally diverse groups of ‘farmer leaders’ will be successful in recruiting wider-reaching networks of farmers, many of whom we may not have been able to reach ourselves. The goals of these farmer networks are to increase positive, conservation-minded peer-to-peer interactions and, ultimately, to improve water quality in the Saginaw Bay,” Crank continued.

screenshot of Great Lakes Watershed Management Program

The Farmer-led conservation program uses the Great Lakes Watershed Management Program to determine how various BMPs affect phosphorus and sediment runoff.

The project will utilize the Great Lakes Watershed Management System (GLWMS), a decision support tool that allows users to digitize a field of interest and describe their agricultural operations on it, such as crop rotation, tillage, tile drainage, nutrient application rates, and soil tests. The system can then evaluate different agricultural best management practices or BMPs (cover crops, filter strips, nutrient management, sub-surface nutrient application, conservation tillage) to see what impact they have on phosphorus and sediment. Users can also use a payment calculator to estimate how much funding they might be eligible for through the project.

GLWMS allows users to generate detailed reports for their runoff simulations and payment estimates.  The project organizers will use the simulations that users have saved to the GLWMS database to estimate the cumulative nutrient runoff reduction that their project is achieving.

The project is being funded by a $1 million Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grant to Michigan State University’s (MSU) Institute of Water Research. Partners involved in the project include MSU Extension, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD), Michigan Association of Conservation Districts (MACD), Michigan Farm Bureau (MFB), and the County Conservation Districts in Genesee, Gratiot, Tuscola, Shiawassee, and Saginaw counties.

For further information on the project, contact PI Jeremiah Asher at or Project Manager Connor Crank at

Jeremiah Asher, Institute of Water Research at Michigan State University

Headshot of Jeremiah Asher

Jeremiah Asher is the assistant director at the Institute of Water Research and has an extensive background in geographic information systems (GIS), project management, decision support system development, and natural resource management. His research focus is on web/GIS application development, and he is the chief architect and designer of the nationally awarded North Carolina Ecosystem Enhancement Program for Pasquotank Watershed and nationally awarded Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool interface for the State of Michigan. His most recent activities and research are focused on developing sensors for managing water, groundwater credit trading, and edge of field and floating wetland research.

Conner Crank, Institute of Water Research at Michigan State University

Headshot of Conner CrankConnor Crank is the Project/Event Coordinator at the Institute of Water Research. Connor’s background centers around ecological research, GIS analysis, and project/grant management. Connor received her B.S. from Michigan State University in 2014 and her M.S. in Conservation Biology from the University of Florida in 2016.



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