Farming is a dirty business, and I’m not just talking about the ever-present dirt and manure. Besides all those cow farts filling the atmosphere with methane, agricultural operations are to blame for another dangerous form of pollution: fertilizer runoff.

As you might imagine, big farms use a lot of fertilizer. Farmers depend on successful harvests in order to make a living, so they slather on as many growth-boosting chemicals as they can get their hands on. Chemical fertilizers are full of phosphorus and nitrates–nitrogen and oxygen molecules that help crops grow better-faster-stronger. That might be OK if the nitrates stayed in the soil, but they don’t.

According to Scientific American, thanks to rain and irrigation, these nitrates eventually make their way into rivers, lakes and oceans, giving birth to blooms of algae that deplete oxygen and leave vast “dead zones ” in their wake. There, no fish or aquatic plant life can survive.

All this runoff has turned Ohio’s lakes into algae tanks, and threatens to take a chunk out of the state’s yearly $40 billion tourism industry. To fight back, three state agencies will collaborate to support a new program designed to reduce farm pollution and the toxic algae it helps create in Ohio’s lakes.

The Ohio Clean Lakes Initiative is a program geared to improve water quality and reduce harmful algal blooms in the Western Basin of Lake Erie. The voluntary program encourages farmers to “use the right fertilizer source at the right rate at the right time and with the right placement.”

“Agriculture is important to Ohio–it is the No. 1 industry in our state,” said Ohio Department of Agriculture Director David Daniels. “The Ohio Clean Lakes Initiative focuses on reducing excess nutrients in our waterways resulting not only from agriculture, but from a variety of urban and residential sources, such as sewage overflow. Together our agencies believe we can address the challenges facing Ohio’s waterways through this program.”

Other areas of focus moving forward to combat phosphorus in Ohio lakes include continued research into nutrient management with an emphasis on dissolved reactive phosphorus, communications and education efforts with farmers and other interested parties on agricultural nutrient management and the benefit of cover crops, controlled drainage structures and variable rate technology.

Although the program’s main focus is to preserve important freshwater ecosystems, the environment won’t be the only thing to improve if it’s successful. Good nutrient stewardship not only benefits the environment, it also benefits farmers by saving money and time instead of applying unnecessary or excessive fertilizer to the field.

 Main photo credit: andyarthur/Flickr