Toxic Algae, Dead Dogs, and How We Grow Our Food

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The Capital Times (Wisconsin)

Toxic Algae, Dead Dogs, and How We Grow Our Food

You wouldn’t think a game of fetch could be deadly. But last month an Indiana couple’s dogs died after fetching balls in an algae-infested lake. There were no warnings posted, and only after the dogs got sick and died did their owners learn the lake was toxic.

Blue-green algae can be deadly for pets, and cause serious skin and respiratory problems in people. You’ve probably seen some of it this summer — it’s found in lakes all across the Midwest.

The smelly green mats of algae that plague our lakes are directly linked to how we grow our food. Chemical fertilizer runoff from farmland and manure runoff from livestock operations contribute high levels of phosphorous to the water. This spurs the growth of blue-green algae (also known as cyanobacteria), especially in hot, dry weather.

Our nation’s refusal to reward farmers for practices that protect water quality and penalize those who compromise it is unacceptable.

Farmers used to rotate crops, and plant cover crops to prevent erosion and keep nutrients on the farm, but practices have changed. Federal policies encourage and reward farmers for growing commodity crops like soybeans as well as corn for livestock feed and, increasingly, ethanol. Continuous production of corn and soybeans with no rotation to hay or pasture depletes the soil — so commodity crops require lots of fertilizer and pesticides.

Organic farmers rotate the kinds of crops we plant, reducing the chance of erosion. Pasture and hay are a vital part of the rotation, protecting the soil, while providing our cattle with the diet they are designed to eat.

But often, large conventional farms operate differently. Larger livestock operations mean more manure, which can be valuable fertilizer — or a waste product that needs to be dealt with. Often manure is spread too heavily on the land, just to get rid of it.

Many popular conservation programs that reward farmers for protecting water quality are under the ax in this year’s federal farm bill, suggesting the problem will only get worse.

This is all wrong, Wisconsin is a national leader in sustainable agriculture, and we could be a model for the Midwest and the nation in reducing agricultural runoff.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources led a multi-year process with a diverse group of stakeholders that resulted in innovative rules to control phosphorus runoff. Unfortunately, the DNR’s failure to follow the regulations they worked so hard to create has increased uncertainty for permittees, and is clearly a tragic lost opportunity to make a difference in solving a national problem.

I can imagine how that Indiana couple must have felt when their dogs died. As a dairy farmer, my animals mean a lot to me, and losing one is always difficult to accept. A situation like this is particularly upsetting because the lake shouldn’t have been polluted in the first place. Until clean water is a priority, our lakes could continue to spell real danger for our dogs and ourselves.

Jim Goodman

Jim Goodman is a dairy farmer from Wonewoc, Wisconsin.

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