How farmers are working with conservation groups to improve Lake Ontario’s health

Aerial view of southern Ontario in the summer season Photo by Olga Gabay/Shutterstock

The government of Ontario announced that it’s investing more than $6 million into environmental conservation efforts for the Great Lakes

The funding is going to various conservation groups across the province, including non-profits, universities, and more than 10 First Nations communities and organizations. Over $200,000 is going to Lower Trent Region Conservation Authority and the Quinte Conservation Association, which have been following a remedial action plan to preserve the Bay of Quinte since it was designated an area of concern in 1985. 

Lower Trent Region Conservation Authority uses the funding to help farms run soil tests, build livestock fencing, repair septic systems, and install cover crops and buffer plants. Action plan spokesperson Sarah Midlane-Jones says these measures have drastically helped to revitalize the bay and its 10 initial water quality issues have been reduced to three.

“The bay offers drinking water to people in the area,” Midlane-Jones explained. “It’s also a very valuable recreational resource because it’s known as one of the world-class fisheries.”

One of the conservation authority’s current goals is to reduce phosphorus runoff into the bay—phosphorus provides key nutrients to algae, and the Bay of Quinte has struggled with harmful algal blooms in the past.

“I don’t think we’ve had a bloom in several years, which is a good testament to the phosphorous reduction that we’re achieving,” she says. 

Though the conservation authority also gets federal funding, the provincial government’s financial support is still crucial: last year alone, Lower Trent Region Conservation Authority received 47 applications from local farms seeking conservation support.

While they don’t fund Kaiser Lake Farms, she says it’s the “poster child” for farms to mitigate their environmental impact especially with respect to reducing runoff. Owned and managed by Eric Kaiser since the mid-1960s, Kaiser Lake Farms grows corn, soybeans, and wheat, and raises chickens and pullets, on a 1350-acre parcel of land by Hay Bay and the Bay of Quinte.

Kaiser says it’s challenging to farm on the land’s eight-inch layer of silty clay topsoil because it’s susceptible to erosion—the main cause of phosphorus, nitrogen, and ammonia runoff. The farm implemented a no-till practice in 2000 to prevent this, since tillage breaks down the soil and makes it erode faster. Using his civil engineering education, Kaiser also installed pipes across the farm to catch excess water and funnel it into the bay before it floods crops and pulls away important nutrients. 

“It takes 500 to 1000 years to create an inch of topsoil from the silt soil, and I don’t have that long to wait,” he says. “We need to do what we can to prevent erosion.”

But Kaiser says their conservation measures address many issues beyond runoff. For example, they use manure from their livestock to make sure the nutrients they introduce into the ecosystem are organic. He says it took them years to learn these practices without funding or “intellectual support,” so he’s glad the conservation authority is sharing information and funding with local farmers.

“I looked everywhere for all the information I could glean. I did what I did because I knew and understood what needed to be done,” he says. “But there’s a lot of people who don’t do what we do, and that presents an opportunity (for the conservation authority) to provide input.”

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