Note:This article was written when James Zehringer was director of agriculture. On Tuesday, Nov. 15, he was sworn in as director of ODNR.
FREMONT, Ohio — After years of hunting, canoeing and spending hours on end in a tractor without a radio, Seneca County grain farmer Dwight Clary admits to spending a lot of time in thought.
Much of his thinking deals with ways he can improve the land he farms and the impact on the environment. Recently, his concern has focused on agricultural runoff and sedimentation into nearby water systems.
Then and now
The issue is nothing new to his part of the state and was a major concern in the 1970s when large concentrations of harmful algal blooms were showing up just a few miles north in Lake Erie — where most of the water drains.
Farmers responded and, according to studies, reduced phosphorous and sedimentation entering the lake by half or more. But recent images by NASA, as well as tests conducted by scientists in the Great Lakes region, and reports from recreational users of the lake confirm the algae is back — with new concerns over aquatic life, water usage, safe swimming and boating.
Clary and his family have farmed in the area since at least 1950, adapting many conservation practices along the way. But their newest device is probably the most unique — a concrete trough or chute, which he loosely calls the “Clary instream sediment collector.”
It amounts to a poured concrete chute, 25-30 feet long with a concrete box in the stream bed. A grate goes across the box, making it flush with the original stream bed, and the water passes unrestricted while the sediment falls through the grate and into the box.
Clary installed two of the units last fall with the help of community volunteers and donations.
He estimates the units were full of sediment within a couple months, but so far, the record wet year has prevented him from removing the sediment.
When the weather breaks, though, he plans to remove the sediment with a front-end loader and apply it to his fields, reusing the nutrients and preventing them from advancing down stream.
“The key to those is to collect the sediments in the subwatersheds before it gets to the big river and out in the lake,” he said. “The idea is to capture them up here and put them back on the field.”
It’s one of many voluntary efforts farmers in the region are taking.
A few miles east, near the town of Green Springs, Bill Frankart of Ridge View Farms is using filter strips and advanced fertilizer application technology to control similar issues.
A filter strip is an area of grass that runs between a field and a stream or drainage ditch. The strip absorbs and blocks excess nutrients and sediments from entering the water system.
Frankart also participates in the Conservation Security Program, administered through the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. Other conservation measures include planting cover crops with an airplane, and no-till farming.
Into the lake
Most of the water in the region enters the Sandusky Bay of Lake Erie, either via the Sandusky River, or in Frankart’s case, directly from a series of creeks. The quality of water entering the lake has the potential to affect hundreds of thousands, to millions of people.
“I figure if we can do something to try to show that we’re doing the best we can, that’s important for the public perspective,” he said.
Agriculture is a known contributor, but so are municipal wastes and bad septic systems, as well as some landscaping practices. A report released in September by the U.S. Geological Survey found municipalities share an equal part of the blame as farms.
Don’t want regulations
Farmers, however, are focused on their part. In addition to their voluntary efforts, a state-based nutrient management work group began meeting this year, consisting of the Ohio Department of Agriculture, Ohio Department of Natural Resources and Ohio EPA — working together with universities and stakeholders, including farmers, to form recommendations for farmers as well as state officials.
“We need to address this or we’re going to have agencies and rule makers addressing it for us,” Agriculture Director James Zehringer said at a recent group meeting. “We can point fingers to septic tanks, we can point fingers to everything else, but we need to take charge of our own destiny.”
He said farmers did the work they were asked 25-30 years ago, and the results showed tremendously. But, recent tests and the increase in “dissolved phosphorous” show more work is needed.
“I think they did a good job, but it’s not good enough — is what science is telling them now,” he said.
The results of the work group are expected to be presented to the department heads around the turn of the year, said Mike Bailey, of ODA.
Voluntary conservation is still a big part of improving the situation, and farmers like Clary and Frankart are hopeful their efforts can offset the need for new regulation.
“Everything at this point has been our decision to make; there haven’t been any mandates,” Frankart said. “That’s why we want to be on the forefront to try to do things like this before they make you or mandate you to do that.”
Various government incentives are available to encourage conservation in the region, including the Great Lakes Basin Program for Soil Erosion and Sediment Control. In the Tiffin Watershed, a soil savings program is being administered that pays farmers $10 a ton for topsoil saved. A formula is used to calculate the soil savings, with respect to the conservation methods being used.
Cindy Brookes, watershed specialist with the Sandusky River Watershed Coalition, said the savings are a benefit to the fields, the water systems, and help prevent the need for dredging and excavating.
“Paying a farmer $10 a ton to save a ton of soil versus the government paying someone to dredge at $22 a ton, there’s a great savings,” she said.
Each watershed has its own set of programs in incentives, but common goals. The greatest good is seen when many farmers in a watershed participate, as opposed to independent projects.
Clary thinks the sediment collectors he has designed could be successfully used by other farmers, and Frankart encourages other farmers to invest in filter strips, as well. The land given up for conservation means sacrificing some yield, but both men said it pays off in the long run.
“The potential for a small investment to have a lot of payoff long-term is incredible,” Clary said.
The sediment will be tested as soon as it’s removed from the collectors, to see what nutrients it contains.
But Brookes and Clary already have seen some good signs, including an increase in macroinvertebrate — one of the telltale signs of healthier water.
“That’s an improvement to the stream and I think a testament all in its own,” she said.
On-farm recommendations to battle nutrient runoff:
• Take frequent soil tests and follow soil fertilization rates based on OSU guidelines.
• Do not spread phosphorous and other fertilizer on frozen or snow-covered ground. This includes manure.
• Prevent applications that exceed agronomic needs. Make use of technology that applies only the necessary amount of fertilizer per acre, and per area of field.
• Maintain good fertilization records.
• Incorporate fertilizer into the soil layer as much as possible.
• Reduce fall phosphorous application.
• Develop and practice conservation plans, such as filter and buffer strips, no-till and minimum tillage.