REYNOLDSBURG, Ohio — Three state departments and dozens of farm-related organizations and farmers convened at the Ohio Department of Agriculture Dec. 5, where they continued to hash out the details of a water quality management proposal to be presented to Ohio Gov. John Kasich the first of February.
Interim Agriculture Director Tony Forshey, Department of Natural Resources Director James Zehringer, and Scott Nally, director of Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, participated in three group discussions about what farmers can and should do to help mitigate the issues of ag-related sedimentation and nutrient loading to watersheds.
The discussion covered everything from proper manure and chemical fertilizer application, to field tile drainage, to new tillage equipment and conservation practices.
Properly called the Agricultural Nutrients and Water Quality Working Group — the conglomeration of industry and academic persons is hammering out a set of recommendations it hopes will give farmers the research, incentives and production practices to help improve water quality and keep nutrients in the fields.
At the heart of the recommendations are the 4-R’s — using the right fertilizer source, at the right rate, at the right time, with the right placement. Scores of topics related to those four guidelines are still being debated, with the expectation formal recommendations will be pieced together during a meeting Dec. 19, and again Jan. 23, if necessary.
Same problem, different issue
The problem of nutrient loading into watersheds and Lake Erie is nothing new, and was a major focus for farmers since at least the 1970s. Farmers responded in the years following and cut the nutrient issue in half, studies confirm, but now the issue is mainly “dissolved phosphorous.”
The dissolved form is many times more accessible to unwanted plant growth, and is one of the primary culprits of the harmful algal blooms.
Larry Antosch, senior director for Ohio Farm Bureau Federation’s Program Innovation and Environmental Policy, said researchers are still unsure why dissolved phosphorous levels are so high, or how it’s traveling to the lake.
Farmers are using less fertilizer, soil phosphorous levels are dropping, yet dissolved phosphorous is increasing.
“We’re asking a lot of very good, researchable questions,” Antosch said. “The end result will be to develop better tools to be able to identify the risks of off-site transport of phosphorous.”
Terry McClure, who farms about 4,000 acres in Paulding County, said farmers have adapted new practices over the years to meet new demands in production and environmental expectations. He said he was still plowing as early as 1995, but went to mostly all no-till farming. Now, he’s going back to some occasional light tillage, to do a better job of mixing nutrients deeper into the soil.
“There’s unintended consequences to great things that we’re doing,” he said, adding “we’ve changed totally how we farm and we’re finding out there’s different issues that come along.”
He said the process of improving is never-ending and there always is something new.
“There’s all kinds of things that we need to keep exploring,” he said. “That’s the great thing about ag … we’re constantly looking for a better way to do it and hopefully we can increase production at the same time.”
As for livestock manure, some farmers expressed concern that too stringent standards could prevent them from keeping their barns and lagoons from over-piling. But, Kevin Elder, who heads the state’s environmental permitting program for livestock operations, said most of the regulations for manure handling and application already are in place.
The biggest thing, he said, is making sure the manure and other fertilizers are “in contact with the soil.”
Nally said the state EPA is holding similar meetings with municipalities and non-ag businesses to address water quality issues those entities affect. Federal regulations are on the books to tackle those issues, but farming generally provides more of a non-point source of pollution, Nally said, which means volunteer efforts will be more important.
Some form of new regulations are expected when the proposal is made final, but also many suggestions and guidelines.
Nally said the best way to control what regulations get made is to be part of the solution.
“They (farmers) need to be part of the process and part of the solution because if not, somebody will fill the void with a regulation,” he said.
Nally said farmer representation on the work group has been exceptional and praised the bringing together of three state departments.
“I am thrilled to death that we are approaching this as a team because each of us individually would not get this accomplished,” he said. “It’s imperative that we work together on this and we are Ohio, we’re not the Department of Ag., we’re not EPA, we’re not DNR, we’re Ohio and we’re in this together.”
It’s too soon to know exactly what the recommendations might be, but comments from the three sub-work groups will be brought together at the next meeting, so the whole group can give an “honest assessment” of what should advance, said Mike Bailey, the ODA staff person facilitating the group.
In addition to the “4-R’s,” the group is looking at ways to encourage more soil testing, cover crops, use of water control structures on drainage tiles and wetlands and filter strips.
Discussions are also under way about giving the state ag director authority to regulate use of fertilizer, and clarifying the state’s licensing structure for fertilizer distributors.
The group also is working with academic and research professionals from Ohio State University and Heidelberg University.