Ohio water quality bill moving through capitol

WOOSTER, Ohio — Speaking at a breakfast forum Feb. 28 at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee said he’s about to advance the state’s water quality and agriculture nutrient management bill.

Ohio Rep. Dave Hall, R-Millersburg, said he purposefully slowed action on S.B. 150 to allow himself and other House members plenty of time to hear from farmers. The Senate passed the bill Jan. 22 by a vote of 32-0.

The bill is designed to address agriculture’s part in water nutrient loading, and is in response to toxic algal blooms in Lake Erie, as well as some inland bodies of water. These toxins can sicken and kill animals, as well as humans.

Act first

Hall said it’s important for Ohio’s leaders to handle the matter, because if they don’t, the federal government will. He pointed to the Chesapeake Bay Watershed as an example, where federal regulators have set nutrient standards that farmers and others must meet.

Related: Farm groups appeal EPA decision on Chesapeake Bay

“If we don’t pass this bill then the big boys will be looking at Ohio — that’s U.S. EPA. And I don’t want them to drive the issue,” he said.

About the bill

A primary feature of the bill is that it requires a fertilizer applicator who applies manufactured fertilizer to 50 or more contiguous acres to be certified by the Ohio Department of Agriculture. This would be an educational certification, and would be similar to the existing pesticide certification, with a fee that is similar.

Producers would need certified every three years, and the education would focus on the 4Rs of Nutrient Stewardship — applying the right source of fertilizer, place, rate and time.

The bill allows ODA to revoke a license in cases where farmers act recklessly — endangering the health of humans or animals.

Related: Water quality issue and what’s at stake.

Producers would be required to keep fertilizer records, but would not be required to submit them to the government. However, in cases where ODA believes someone acted recklessly, ODA could inspect those records.

Adam Sharp, vice president of public policy for Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, said the bill is a big deal that addresses a big issue.

“This program is recognized as a big deal” to U.S. EPA and others, he said. “Water quality for the U.S. EPA is a primary issue. We want to preserve our flexibility in Ohio to be able to take on this issue to deal with it in a flexible manner, but in an aggressive manner.”

Updates made

As the legislation has evolved, it has incurred some significant changes. It no-longer defines fertilizer as an ag pollutant, the bill is now a single-agency program (ODA), and there have been some exemptions made. For instance, you’re exempt if you apply starter fertilizer through a planter.

Janelle Mead, deputy director of ODA, said the department is working on ways to make the certification as convenient as possible. The testing would be suspended the first three years, and the plan is to incorporate training into the pesticide training program — for those fertilizer applicators who already do pesticide training.

Mead said the cost of the training (believed at about $35) will “probably pay dividends” in the long run, as farmers not only reduce the environmental issue, but gain new information about nutrient management that will help their operations be more efficient.

“It’s good for you guys,” said Steve Prochaska, OSU Extension agronomy field specialist. “This program gives us the opportunity to move toward the one thing that’s constant in agriculture and that’s change. What we propose to do is move you farmers to a more profitable but yet more environmentally sound platform.”

The cause

Research continues on how nutrients move from the field into the water — particularly dissolved phosphorus.

Prochaska said some of the issues have been consistent no-till and conservation tillage, more field tile installed, and the fact farmers are rotating their crops less in favor of high-dollar crops like corn and soybeans.

As a result, he said, nutrients are stratifying in the upper layer and not being incorporated as they had in the past.

“Across most of Ohio we’ve moved to a conservation tillage system and essentially what’s happening here — to cut through the mustard — is we are not doing inversion tillage,” he said.

Prochaska said he understands and respects why farmers tile their fields. He said it also makes sense why they use conservation tillage and plant the most profitable crops — but that these things also create a new situation for how nutrients must be managed.

(The breakfast forum was sponsored by the Northeast Ohio Agribusiness Forum. For information about upcoming breakfasts, contact Bob Leach at Braintree Business Development Center, by email at bleach@braintreepartners.org.)

About the Author

Chris Kick lives in Wooster, Ohio. An American FFA Degree recipient, he holds a bachelor’s in creative writing from Ashland University. He spends his free time on his grandparents’ farms in Wayne and Holmes counties. More Stories by Chris Kick

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