Lake CFB Nutrient Stewardship Field Day

By Barb Anderson, Special to FarmWeekNow

Thomas Doolittle says it isn’t easy farming in a Chicago collar county.

The Lake County Farm Bureau president near Antioch finds moving equipment and other tasks difficult among the urban growth that has sprawled into the area.

But he also knows fertile farmland can’t be reproduced, so protecting and preserving the acreage there is critical to the future. And part of that effort is partnering with urban interests in helping keep the water clean in the county’s many lakes.

“There are a lot of lakes in this county, so when our county Farm Bureau board was approached by the Friends of Lake Catherine and Channel Lakes, it made sense to meet with them and discuss remedies for helping reduce phosphorus levels in the lakes and improve water quality for residents and tourists,” said Doolittle. “We are thankful for the partnership in progress.”

Farm Bureau and Friends of Catherine and Channel Lakes representatives discussed their efforts during the Lake County Farm Bureau Nutrient Stewardship Field Day, held July 19 at Bob’s Marina. The project is funded through the Illinois Farm Bureau Nutrient Stewardship Grant Program and the collaborators are testing a new strategy to improve lake water quality.

Illinois Director of Agriculture Jerry Costello agreed a county with both a great system of lakes and productive farmland is perfect to showcase nutrient loss reduction.

“Tourism here has a significant economic impact on Illinois, and agriculture is the number one industry in the state,” said Costello. “Farm Bureau is a strategic partner with the Illinois Department of Agriculture to have the hard conversations about nutrient stewardship and solve problems together.”

Friends of Catherine and Channel Lakes was created by local residents in 2014 following one of the worst algae blooms ever in the lakes. The group has explored several tactics to reduce phosphorus loads that enter the lakes from the watersheds and wastewater. Sludge at the bottom of the lake also generates phosphorus, but the groups may have found a solution that will maintain the ecosystem and quality of lake life while getting rid of pollutants and limiting unwanted weeds in the water.

The solution involves submerging about 415 “biochar bags” off piers in the lakes. Biochar was developed by Biochar NOW, a company created 12 years ago when CEO James Gaspard found himself with hundreds of acres of dead softwood trees in Colorado. The company developed a patented process to extract pure carbon from the trees. The carbon has positive and negative charges that can bind up to 99.9% of phosphorus and nitrates from water or soil.

In the case of the lakes, the carbon product, known as biochar, is processed into rice-size pieces and placed in long mesh bag “socks” that allow water to flow through them, particularly on breezy days. The bags are similar in size to dock bumpers. As water flows through the bags, the biochar pieces bind to phosphorus, along with any toxins.

“It takes time, but using the bags is less expensive than other tactics to lower phosphorus loads,” said Gaspard. “Water will not fill up the bags, and they can be used for several years.”

The bags have already proven successful in lowering phosphorus in lakes around the country, and Biochar NOW’s product has been approved for several applications by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“Everything is coming together,” said Amy Littleton, president, Friends of Catherine and Channel Lakes. “We will measure phosphorus levels and the impact of the biochar bags as we go. We are on the right track, but we still need to lower the phosphorus levels more.”

Biochar offers additional uses beyond water. Gaspard explained that once bags are removed from the water, they can be cut open and the material used in landscape and garden beds as a naturally charged fertilizer containing the phosphorus from the lakes. The carbon does not leach, and the locked-up, plant-available nutrients remain in the root zone. Fertilizer use has proven successful in specialty crops, which Gaspard says have seen dramatic yield gains. Applications in Illinois row crops may be an option.        

“We appreciate having a seat at the table for locally-driven strategies,” said Lauren Lurkins, Illinois Farm Bureau director of environmental policy. Farm Bureau has invested $2.4 million in nutrient loss reduction initiatives, including $850,000 to the Nutrient Stewardship Grant Program since 2015, with projects in 70 counties. “Rural and urban nutrient stewardship efforts benefit the environment, and we are confident of continued progress on improving water quality.”

To read more about IFB’s nutrient stewardship field days, visit

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