Organic vs. Conventional Farming – Which Favors Cleaner Water?

In a 2011 study conducted by the University of Vermont, stemming from clean water issues in revered Lake Champlain, results were inconclusive as to whether organic farming or conventional farming practices favor a cleaner lake.

What is suggested is, all other things being equal, the rigidity of organic farming standards (some of which are noted below) lend themselves to better land management practices – which may have a positive impact in reducing the nutrient (see: manure) runoff that is largely responsible for Harmful Algae Blooms (HABs). Some standards mentioned are:

  • All organically raised animals must have access to the outdoors, including access to pasture for ruminants. They may be temporarily confined only for reasons of health, safety,
    the animal’s stage of production, or to protect soil or water quality.

    Beyond Clean Water: Organic Farms Command Higher Retail Prices.
    Beyond Clean Water: Organic Farms Command Higher Retail Prices.
  • Land must have no prohibited substances applied to it for at least 3 years before the harvest of an organic crop.
  • Soil fertility and crop nutrients will be managed through tillage and cultivation practices, crop rotations, and cover crops, supplemented with animal and crop waste materials and allowed synthetic materials.

According to the study, a challenge the organic farmer with animals faces, which a conventional farmer may not, is keeping pastured animals from directly wading into streams and lakes — instantly polluting the water.

  • For grazing animals it is important to regulate the extent to which the cows interact with natural waterways. Where livestock have access to these waters there is an increased risk of nutrient losses to surface water.

Clearly the motivation to go organic in farming extends beyond better land management — and the chart above illustrates the financial incentive that may accompany such a move — but there appears to be little doubt that agriculture runoff remains a chief contributor to pollution in Lake Champlain. This is largely consistent across the USA, wherever clean water issues arise.



Private Regulation of WI Farm Operations Ill-advised

At a time when the number of  factory farms has risen precipitously, cutting regulatory staff tasked to ensure these operations remain compliant with regulations is a curious, questionable move.  But, in WI, this is precisely the what is happening.

According to a recent article in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, pressure to reduce budgets has resulted in a 18% reduction in staff at the WI Department of Natural Resources, since 1995. This, while the number of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) permits in WI has more than doubled in the past decade.

cafograph_lg-2Even more troubling? Fines for pollution in WI hit a 30-year low in 2015.

Several counties in WI are struggling with — perhaps suffering under is a more appropriate description — massive increases in dairy cows in their region, and the incredibly large amounts of manure these herds create. Kewaunee County, as has been mentioned numerous times in prior blogs here, is perhaps the best current example.

While nobody argues the value of manure as a valuable source of fertilizer for farm operations, it is also clear that manure is a primary contributor to non-point pollution which results in devastating algae blooms as seen annually in Lake Erie, Lake Okeechobee, and many other rivers, streams and lakes across the USA.

Wisconsin lawmakers suggest that cooperative regulation will make the process more efficient, less costly, and will result in better practices resulting in decreased pollution, etc.


But just as likely, if not even more so, is that environmental costs in the form of contaminated ground water, surface water dead zones, algae blooms, and the inherent health risks within area communities, will far outweigh whatever meager savings and questionable efficiencies are attained.

Resources like CWAC, CWA, can only help the HAB cause.

I recently joined a terrific organization, Clean Water Action Council (CWAC) of Northeast WI, which provides superb content for anyone interested in clean water in Wisconsin – in all its forms. Ground, surface, non-point (runoff from communities and agriculture, etc.), and more. For 31 years, CWAC has been working to support legislature, and calling attention to issues that have an impact on clean water in and around Green Bay, WI, including the Fox River Valley, Kewaunee County, and Door County.

CAFO operation - Kewaunee County, WI
CAFO operation – Kewaunee County, WI

Since this area of the Midwest is one that is deeply – and seemingly negatively –  impacted by a wild increase in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), CWAC is a great example of a local group making a difference, and they are not alone.

Indeed, on its site CWAC offers information links and tools that can even extend beyond its target area. An example:

Who are your local water polluters?

Two national websites provide detailed data about pollution sources in local communities. Just type in your zip code and you may find more than you really wanted to know!

The Scorecard, by Environmental Defense

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

For more information:

On a national level, Clean Water Action (CWA) works to promote clean water and a healthy environment, via its network of state organizations.

What does it all mean? Good news — and terrific resources —  for any interested in becoming involved with, or educated about, clean water initiatives.

When HABs Strike … and Why.

Harmful Algae Blooms (HABs), which often come in the form of blue-green algae – the scientific name being Cyanobacteria, are a true problem to the health of freshwater and saltwater bodies across the planet. And a problem that has for years been recognized.

Although scientists are still seeking to learn more about HABs, rules of thumb do prevail. And, to boot, these rules are predictable and fairly straightforward.

This comes from a page provided by the WI Department of Natural Resources:

According to scientific literature, cyanobacteria most commonly occur in late summer and early fall when water temperatures reach 72°-80° F. At these temperatures, cyanobacteria grow rapidly and may create a bloom within a few days.”

In addition, excessive levels of nutrients must be added to the mix. And that means phosphorus, as noted on this page from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

NASA Image: Great Britain Red-Tide
NASA Image: Great Britain Red-Tide

These conditions help explain why warm-weather areas like Florida, with robust agricultural industries, are particularly vulnerable to the constant, and sometimes debilitating, reappearances of HABs.

Not much can be done about the weather but, as has been noted many times in this blog — quoting national and international experts on the subject — phosphorus runoff from agricultural operations CAN be reduced via better land management.

And that’s a start ….