Research HighlightsWatershed study: Clean water and productive agriculture can work together
By Carol Brown
Many researchers live by the premise “go where the data takes you.” Sometimes data isn’t the only thing that guides a research project. Indiana biology professor Jerry Sweeten found that unexpected outcomes can change the course of research and its impact.
The Manchester University emeritus professor led a multi-year project on whether cover crops and other best management practices for conservation farming were effective in reducing nutrients and sediment in streams. The project, funded by the Indiana Soybean Alliance (ISA) and Indiana Corn Marketing Council (ICMC), compared two watersheds containing tributaries of the Eel River. In the Beargrass Creek watershed, Sweeten focused on adding conservation farming practices. He compared it to the Pawpaw Creek watershed that had few acres with conservation practices.
“We wanted to quantify how much nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment were moving through the Beargrass Creek watershed and into the tributary,” said Sweeten. “We quickly learned we needed to develop a relationship with the farmers.”
At that time, Sweeten was the university’s environmental studies program director. He wanted to get his students out of the classroom and gather the required data through experiential learning. They wanted to collect stream samples at many locations on private farmland. Sweeten found there was a cultural divide between those at the university and the farming community. The farmers were afraid they were going to use the collected data toward a movement of regulation, Sweeten said.
“A beautiful relationship emerged from this research project,” he said. “I call it a ‘conservation cultural bridge.’ It was a great opportunity for the students and the farmers to see there was a common environmental interest even though we came from varied cultural backgrounds.”
The students collected thousands of water samples from the 15,000-acre watershed with automatic samplers and a high-tech gauge station.
“We wanted to know if we could see a change in the export of nutrients and sediment coming out of Beargrass,” Sweeten said. “The data collected suggest that something is happening. We’ve seen downward movement in phosphorus, sediment and nitrogen in the water, but it’s not definitive.”
What Sweeten found to be definitive is the trust he and his students have built with the farmers and landowners. The farmers came around as they worked with Sweeten on the project; and through the farmers, Sweeten found more ways to improve water quality in the river, which led to more studies.
Slowing streambank erosion
Gary Runkel and his brother Steve grow corn and soybeans on 2,000 acres in the watershed and Beargrass Creek runs through much of their property. They tried cover crops for the first time and added more no-till acres because of Sweeten’s project. But the Runkels’ biggest contribution to improved water quality was stabilizing the streambanks on their land.
“We’ve noticed for a long time, 40 years or so, a lot of streambank erosion – not just ours but all over – when we have high water all that dirt gets in the water and heads downstream,” Gary said. “We wanted to clean our streambank up for a long time, but it’s a really big project.”
All it took was showing the streambank to Sweeten who took it from there. Sweeten secured funding through a partnership with biologist Donovan Henry from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Through this grant, contractors installed a two-stage ditch along 1,400 feet of streambank on Runkels’ land.
“They took out the trees, reshaped the banks, added a second level and reseeded all of it,” Runkel said. “It has stopped the bank erosion 100 percent and it’s opened the eyes of a lot of those in the community and beyond.”
They continue to monitor the stream for sediment, nutrients, and now aquatic life in the stream, Runkel said.
But the cover crops and conservation component of the research was not forgotten. At the peak of the research project, Beargrass Creek watershed was in the 95th percentile for participation using best management practices for conservation among Indiana among watersheds of its size.
“We spent hundreds of thousands of dollars toward cost-share for farmers,” Sweeten said. “We realized some of the conservation practices we were asking them to try were a little risky.”
Farmers can make a big difference
Boyd Brubaker farms corn and soybeans with his dad and brother on about 1,700 acres in the watershed and they also raise hogs. They’ve no-tilled soybeans since 1997 and began no-tilling corn six years ago. Brubaker introduced cover crops on some of his acres about eight years ago and has been experimenting with them ever since.
“They are not something we’re doing on every acre, every year,” Brubaker said. “I believe in cover crops, but I need to figure out how to make them work for us. We need to take good care of the soil and cover crops are a good way to do that.”
In addition to using these conservation farming practices, Brubaker added filter strips as some of his farmland is adjacent to the Runkels’ two-stage ditch.
“This project hits close to home, geographically and personally,” Brubaker said. “We’ve got two hog barns sitting on this creek and I don’t want people to come upstream and point fingers at us. I want to be responsible.”
Research leads to more research
Because the project’s data and the forged relationships were so strong, the Beargrass Creek watershed was selected as a national Water Quality Initiative (WQI) through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Also, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) selected the watershed to conduct human dimensions work and use project data in EDF’s latest research models, Sweeten said.
Sweeten leveraged the initial grant funding to add research projects encompassing other environmental topics. Through a partnership with Boyd Kynard of BK Riverfish and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, funds were leveraged with ICMC and ISA to install a prototype fish ladder and reintroduce the federally endangered clubshell mussel in the Eel River. They didn’t know if the water quality was good enough to support the mussels, but they have seen a 95 percent survival rate since the project began in 2016.
“To me, the message is that clean water in a stream is not mutually exclusive from a productive agricultural industry. We can have both,” Sweeten said. “We have to be smart and farmers have to change some, but we can’t keep doing business as usual.”
Brubaker agrees and believes working together can be good for everybody involved.
“Water quality doesn’t have to be a battle and I’m not saying that we all agree,” Brubaker said. “We just need to work together and do our best. We have to get along.”
This project was funded by the soybean checkoff. To find research related to this research highlight or to see other checkoff research projects, please visit the National Soybean Checkoff Research Database.