State program helps farmers practice environmental stewardship

Conversations about soil erosion, ground and surface water quality, and environmental impacts grab attention in agricultural and non-ag communities. 

Both groups have a vested interest in keeping productive soil, doing what it is supposed to, in fertile fields, where it belongs. Both groups want to enjoy pristine lakes, streams, and rivers. And everyone depends on clean water for drinking, cooking, and bathing.

During the 1990s, those conversations in Michigan began to unfold into a plan that would help farmers organize and execute their approach to soil and water protection strategies. It would give them a framework of operation to navigate the growing number of regulations required to operate a farm and produce food. It would protect them from anyone pointing fingers at the farm’s methods of resource management. 

It also would verify that the farm’s owners are caring for their land, water, and the life it supports — not just at a baseline level, but surpassing expectations.

Environmental stewardship

The Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP) became reality in 1998, after nearly a decade of work. It is administered through the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Every county in Michigan has a technician who works with farmers, most of whom are part of the local Conservation District teams overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) office of the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). Occasionally, a technician provides service for two counties.

The MAEAP technician helps farms adopt and implement cost-effective practices to reduce erosion and runoff, which help farmers comply with state and federal standards and laws. The 100% voluntary program is free and confidential, in accordance with state law. There are four categories for certification — farmstead, cropping, livestock, and forest/wetlands and habitat.

Many farms receive multiple certifications. A rather large sign is part of the reward farmers proudly display after verification. It shows that they have completed the evaluation, made changes, and upgraded where needed. It also shows that the farm has taken a comprehensive look at the big picture and its role in environmental stewardship.

How it works

Ottawa and Allegan counties are agriculturally diverse — two of the state’s largest in terms of geography and ag economic impact. Allegan County has a total of 270 farms verified through MAEAP. Ottawa County has 62.

The Russcher family operates multiple farms, including under the Precision Pork umbrella. (Top row, from left: Lewie and Jeremy Russcher. Bottom row, Dennis and Jeff Russcher).

Sara Bronkema leads the Ottawa County program, and Mike Ludlam oversees MAEAP in Allegan County. A farmer who wants to complete the verification contacts the local USDA office. The MAEAP technician schedules a visit, where the farmers provide a tour. Together, they work through the rubric, evaluating the system or systems they want to verify.

What does the fuel storage look like? How are chemicals and pesticides stored? What records are being kept on fertilizer, manure, and chemical applications? Is the well-head protected from backflushing during irrigation? Is there manure storage and, if so, how is it handled?

No two farms are alike, and not every verification question applies to each farm. A farm with no livestock has no reason to get that certification.

“After the tour and initial visit, we come up with a plan of action,” Bronkema says. “It is up to the individual farmer to work through and implement it.”

“The key is making sure the plan works for the farmer,” Ludlam says.

Things like record-keeping cost little to implement. Structures that require large cement pours or infrastructure changes require both time and money.

That is where NRCS — the conservation arm of the USDA — can help, by implementing portions of the current farm bill to provide cost-sharing on expensive conservation projects.

Once the plan is fully implemented, a third-party verifier from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) reviews the work and either signs off or asks for system tweaks, if needed.

Farm-to-table operation

MAEAP is valuable to farms of all sizes and operations. 

Greg Dunn, owner of Blackbird Farm in Coopersville is a small, farm-to-table operation, growing vegetables under the naturally grown certification. The farm uses organic practices and sells primarily through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares.

“Even though we are organically certified, there are still chemicals approved for use,” Dunn says. “Chemical storage was one of the things we worked on for our farm verification. Making an emergency plan was another good exercise for us, something we needed to do but had gone to the back burner. There are always more important things to do on the farm until you need an emergency plan.”

Blackbird Farm is verified in cropping, farmstead, and livestock. One technology Greg is excited about is the farm well’s new double check valve. It prevents irrigation backflow from returning into the pipe and eventually groundwater, carrying with it any chemical or fertilizer that may be applied during irrigation.

“We went through the MAEAP verification because stewardship is one of the farm’s core values,” Dunn says. “It was good to see what we were doing well and where we could improve. It’s nice to have the protection and be able to demonstrate that we follow GAAMPS (Generally Accepted Ag Management Practices), in case there is ever an issue and people take exception to what we are doing here on the outskirts of Coopersville, where town meets farmland. It shows we are doing what we say and believe in terms of environmental stewardship.”

Large pork operation

Jeff and Lisa Russcher, partners in Precision Pork and J&J Russcher Farms, use a confinement system to raise hogs in Allegan County. The operation includes Jeff’s brothers, Jeremy and Lewie, their father, Dennis, and an uncle. The farm is a third-generation operation that has grown to support five family owners and the well-paid skilled labor force required to maintain an operation in a market that requires about 150 hogs to fill one contract. Many contracts need to be filled weekly to cover cash for expenses, wages, repairs, improvements, and leverage a place for a fourth generation. The farm has been verified for more than 10 years. 

“It definitely benefits us in the fact that it helps us follow regulations for an operation of our size,” says Lisa Russcher, President of Allegan County Farm Bureau. “It protects and helps us follow best practices in taking care of our land and gives us a framework on how to remediate if an accident or spill happens. As farmers, we want people to understand that the land is our livelihood, but it is more than just a living. A farm of this size has been built over generations, and it wasn’t easy. We love it, and it is our heritage. We want to pass it to another generation.”

For a farm to continuously support more families, growth is necessary. Lisa says many people look at a large farm and think it is big merely for the sake of being big. They fail to understand the scale necessary in modern agriculture to support multiple families.

“MAEAP is a program that helps us continuously improve so that we can continue to be sustainable, continue to make our land productive, and make the farm part of the legacy we leave to another generation,” she says.

Not one and done

Dunn says the program technicians are helpful, never forceful, and do not present themselves as environmental police. Rather, they are there to give advice and guide farmers through what can be a quagmire of paperwork.

Every five years, farms must re-verify to maintain their status and protections achieved through MAEAP. Ludlam says that some farms don’t change during the period while others expand or are doing something different.

Between the two counties, nearly 45 farms were either verified or re-verified in 2020. Both technicians are pleased with the number, considering they were essentially shut out of making farm visits in March and April, when farmers are available to meet.

Records are important

Record-keeping is a big part of the farm’s ongoing success, but it’s usually the job farmers dislike most. Ludlam points out, however, that a strong documentation system is fundamental in protecting the farm from fines and lawsuits if an accident happens.

“In Michigan, let’s say you make a chemical application. The rain forecast is a quarter-inch in the next two days, but it turns into 4 inches. The chemical runs off and creates a fish-kill that is traced back to your farm. But you have the records to show that you applied in good faith using approved practices. You worked with the best information you had at the time and didn’t cause intentional harm.”

Read more articles by Bev Berens.