REYNOLDSBURG, Ohio — A work group designed to form and assess water quality recommendations submitted its work Jan. 23 during a meeting that included directors of the Ohio Department of Agriculture, Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Agency.
Known as the Agricultural Nutrients and Water Quality Working Group, the 120 or so members included farmers, industry experts and researchers, who helped form a 35-page list of recommendations to be submitted to Gov. John Kasich Feb. 1.
The recommendations cover research, education and outreach, regulatory incentives and production practices geared toward reducing and minimizing ag-related water quality issues. Most of the recommendations are framed around the popular “4-R’s” concept — apply the right rate of nutrients at the right time, with the right method, and the right place.
Several new committees are called for, including a “questions committee” and a “research review committee.” The questions committee would organize questions to be asked of the state agencies and individuals to “fill in some research gaps” and organize the most relevant questions. The research review committee will include universities, state and federal agencies and farmer groups.
The “4-R’s” have been part of the recommendations throughout the seven meetings the work group has held, but each point now has a definition of what the “right” amount actually is.
The right rate of phosphorous, according to the recommendations, means using reliable soil test information, good crop recommendations, well-maintained and calibrated equipment to ensure accurate applications, and accurate records of soil tests and yields produced.
The right place for phosphorous means that it should be injected or incorporated whenever possible and if surface applications are made, the field should have a growing crop or cover as soon as possible.
The right time means nutrients should not be applied to frozen or snow-covered ground, nutrients should be applied as close to crop utilization as possible and projected precipitation should be considered and avoided.
Some recommendations appear more complete and measurable, while others are still being decided and will likely develop over the next several months. The three directors said they will include all recommendations in an attachment to presented to the governor and his policy staff, but will condense the key points to a few pages.
“It’s incredibly complicated,” said Ohio EPA Director Scott Nally. “Now it’s the three of us (and we) must boil it down to a handful of recommendations.”
Nally said the challenging part will be making recommendations from conflicting views on the same issue. The majority of the work group approved the recommendations, but on an individual basis, some issues still spur debate and uncertainty.
“Because you’ve got both sides of an argument on here, we’re going to have to take a position, and that position may not be a consensus across this room,” he said.
One issue of debate was how to fund research, education and producer incentive initiatives. It was noted that a $4-$5 per ton check-off fee on fertilizer sales would generate more than $10 million in funding annually.
However, concern was voiced over how this new fee might impact farmers, who would be forced to shoulder additional operating expenses.
“If we tack on yet another fee to the farmer as a tonnage tax fee or usage fee, we’re not going to get as (much participation in) this program,” said John Oster, salesman for Morral Co., a major fertilizer business.
He suggested the group look at a tax reduction or similar measure, if it wants to increase participation from farmers.
But, Oster said he generally agrees with the recommendations being made.
“I believe they’re timely and they’re absolutely necessary,” he said. “I believe if we don’t adopt this type of approach as an industry, we risk mandated controls. And I think history has proven that’s seldom very successful.”
Gene Baumgardner, a grain farmer from southwest Ohio and board member of Ohio Corn and Wheat Growers Association, said humans “can’t exist here without having an impact” on the environment. But, he said farmers are looking for ways to be “responsible stewards” of the land.
James Zehringer, director of Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said the diversity of the group was important. Participants grew from a few dozen in the beginning, to 120 at the seventh and final meeting Jan. 23.
“There was a lot of interest to be part of this group and it was a very well diversified group,” he said.
Zehringer expects the governor and his policy staff to review the recommendations, and if more discussions are needed, he expects group members still will be available.
He said the issue is serious and timely, noting the department of agriculture began promoting the “four-r” application in the fall, while he was still ag director. The efforts will only continue, he predicted.
“We needed to implement things right away,” he said. “We said right at the beginning, doing nothing is not an option. Something had to be done right away.”
Tony Forshey, interim ag director, will oversee the agricultural interests in what is presented to the governor. He called it “a very high priority for agriculture.”
Nally said meetings will also continue with municipalities and other sources of water pollution and nutrient loading. Recommendations from those groups will be presented to the governor as well, but at a later date.