WOOSTER, Ohio — Fixing the state’s water quality problems will take the whole agriculture industry working together — including sheep and goat farmers.
That was part of the message at the annual Buckeye Shepherd’s Symposium, held Dec. 14 at the Ohio Agriculture Research and Development Center in Wooster.
Keynote speaker Jack Fisher, who is executive vice president of Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, said agriculture has some “interesting opportunities” ahead, and one of those is the opportunity to take action on water pollution and runoff.
The runoff has been a major issue in Ohio’s lakes, rivers and streams, and has been a known contributor to the growth of algal blooms, which can sicken humans and animals. Reducing the runoff has been a priority issue for agriculture, as well as municipalities and landscape companies.
“We can have public policy that does not require us to choose food production over water quality,” Fisher said. “We can have both.”
But to get there, it takes all of agriculture, as well as non-farm communities. He encouraged the audience to be receptive of all ideas, and to “partner with a stranger.”
Fisher recounted how he “partnered with a stranger” a few years ago, by working out a deal with Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of the United States. Known as “the agreement,” the deal ultimately kept an animal rights issue off the Ohio ballot.
At the time, it seemed the two organizations had opposite goals: The HSUS, with a stated goal of reducing and eliminating animal protein, and the Farm Bureau, advocating on behalf of livestock farmers.
Fisher acknowledged the two parties didn’t agree on much, but that by communicating, they were able to come to an understanding.
“They’re (HSUS) not bad people,” Fisher said. “They sure think differently than we do, but they’re not bad people.”
He said the same line of thinking will be necessary to fix the water issue. Farmers and others will need to be receptive to all the views and information.
“Water is an asset for Ohio — a great asset for Ohio — not a liability,” he said. “Let’s work together to your benefit, to Ohioans’ benefit, to enhance the quality of life and enhance your industry.”
During the presentation of awards, Fisher, along with Bobby Moser, past dean of OSU’s College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, received the Friend of the Ohio Sheep Industry awards.
Distinguished Service Awards went to Tim Barnes of Delaware County; Bob Hendershot, grazing specialist; Damien Chrisman of Harrison County; and Katherine Harrison of Canal Winchester.
The Environmental Stewardship Award went to Cynthia Koonce of Lisbon. The Charles Boyles Master Shepherd Award went to Sam and Pat Wiford of Wapakoneta.
Scholarships were presented to Meghan Bennett of Shelby County, Mark Inbody of Hancock County, and Etta Ray of Noble County. Chelsea Shell of Clinton County was recognized as the Ohio FFA Sheep Proficiency winner.
Various speakers encouraged sheep farmers to get excited about the strong demand and prices for today’s sheep. It is estimated that only half of sheep demand is being met — leaving much opportunity.
At the same time, sheep numbers are down. The industry stands at about 5.3 million head of sheep nationwide — half of what it had just 25 years ago.
“If we’re going to be relevant in the protein market in the world and in the United States, adopting (new) technology is not a question of if, but when,” said Bill Shultz, of Bunker Hill Farm in Logan County.
He was part of a panel who addressed future challenges and opportunities. He said attention to detail — and to genetics — is imperative.
Henry Zerby, OSU animal sciences professor, said producers need to change with the times. He said most farmers have changed more than they realize in their personal lives — by acquiring cell phones and computers, for example.
The same foresight needs to find its way into the barns and into sheep genetics.
“Don’t tell me you can’t change and don’t tell me you haven’t changed,” Zerby said. “I’m starting to question whether or not you ‘want to.’”
He warned producers about doing the same things over and over, just because they’re tradition. Instead, producers should make “success” part of their tradition, which often means doing new things.
Dave Rowe, general manager of Mid-States Wool Growers Cooperative Association, talked about Ohio’s sheep “infrastructure.” That includes things like sheep facilities and livestock equipment suppliers, but also education and the government.
The infrastructure is strongest and most secure when numbers are up. Sheep producers are more influential and their infrastructure is more stable.
“This industry needs to grow and we need numbers,” Rowe said.
Susan Shultz, director for the American Sheep Industry Region 3, said Ohio has what it takes to expand.
“People (here) know how to raise lambs,” she said. “We just need to do it. … Demand is out there. All we have to do is fill the niche.”