One field at a time, farm families such as the Krumwiedes are fighting to keep pollution out of Lake Erie.
The longtime Erie County farm family, recently named the "Cooperator of the Year" for 2007 by the Erie Soil and Water Conservation District, works to keep soil from washing into creeks and prevent fertilizer from leaking into the groundwater.
Conservation districts such as Erie Soil and Water were originally set up in the Dust Bowl Days of the 1930s, when wind blew away valuable topsoil. For decades, the focus of such groups was saving the soil, said district director Eric Dodrill.
But with the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972 came a growing realization farmers such as the Krumwiedes also play a vital role in reducing pollution.
When dirt washes away from the farm, the sediment particles often include phosphorus from fertilizer. When that phosphorus washes into the lake, it can encourage the growth of algae, including harmful algae that produce toxins that poison fish, Dodrill said.
John Krumwiede, 44, says it not a matter of striking a balance between doing the right thing and trying to make enough money to keep the farm going.
When a farmer follows conservation practices, "that is maximizing your income," said Krumwiede, whose family has followed such practices for the past 25 years.
"It costs you a lot of money when you lose soil," he said. "It's beneficial for you when you follow best management practices."
The Krumwiede family includes John, his wife Keely, his parents Gerald and Alice Krumwiede, and John and Keely's two children, Tom, 17, and Rachel, 15.
All pitch in to keep the farm going. The family also has two employees, Scott Moyer and Charlie Murray.
"They are both an integral part of this for us," Krumwiede said. "They are like our family."
The Krumwiedes farm on 2,400 acres of land, growing corn, soybeans, wheat and hay. The family also has about 150 Holsteins.
They farm in southeast Erie County, miles away from the Lake Erie shore. But the farm is part of the Lake Erie watershed, so what they do has consequences for the lake.
Krumwiede explained that he plants grass along drainage areas on his farm to keep dirt from washing into streams.
Fertilizer tanks across the street from the family's home are kept in an area enclosed with metal and a liner. The bottom of the area is filled with rocks.
"If you have a leak in the tank, it will hold it," Tom Krumwiede said. The liquid can then be pumped out, he said.
The Krumwiedes also use no-till farming equipment, which avoids breaking up the soil so the rain can't wash it away as easily.
All of the practices encouraged by Erie Soil and Water are voluntary, although farmers can sign contracts to collect modest amounts of money.
"It was never meant to compete with crop prices," said Tim White, wildlife specialist for Erie Soil and Water. "It's just a small compensation in return for doing the right thing."
"We don't necessarily get paid for all of these different practices," said Krumwiede, who served 15 years as a member of Erie Soil and Water's board. "A lot of it, you just do."
Dodrill said perhaps 125 farmers or landowners in Erie County participate in the various conservation programs, holding 150 contracts. But he said 2,000 farmers or landowners are eligible to take part.
"We're looking at probably a little less than 10 percent who actually participate," Dodrill said.
Participation may be higher than the numbers suggest, since many farmers who follow the practices do so on other people's land, involving those landowners as well.
Still, many people remain to be persuaded to follow conservation practices, Dodrill said.
"Either they don't want to tie up ground into a lengthy contract, or some people, no-till farming for instance, they may be doing the right thing on the land, but don't have the need to apply for the federal incentive. Our work is not done, put it that way," Dodrill said.