No, Ohio farmers are not wiggling around water quality issue

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You can hardly go to an Ohio farm meeting these days and not hear something about water quality. Whether it’s planting more cover crops, doing a better job of applying nutrients, becoming certified to apply fertilizer, or adopting the 4Rs of Nutrient Stewardship — farmers are talking and they’re taking action.

And there’s barely an issue of Farm and Dairy that doesn’t have a story about water quality.

To be honest, I’m a little concerned sometimes that we have written about water quality so much that our readers might be getting burned out and tune out our words. But I can’t apologize.

Priority issue

The fact is, no other issue in Ohio agriculture has received as much attention the past couple years, and it’s not going away.

Whether it’s farmers who have voluntarily adopted new conservation practices, or spoken in favor of new laws and regulations for their own industry, or the state legislature, which this year unanimously approved new laws for applying fertilizer and manure — there is so much going on and being done.

That’s why I’m surprised and even a little shocked when I read things like the Columbus Dispatch’s March 10 editorial, Strong algae rules needed … should not have a sunset clause.

The writers claim that both the House and Senate bills (which by the way received a 100 percent unanimous approval in committees and on the House and Senate floors) “have significant weaknesses,” “loopholes” and “wiggle room” for compliance.

Helping farmers comply

The way I see it, these so-called “loopholes” are really meant to bring farmers into compliance with the new law, while reserving punishment for serious violations. And they’re meant to account for variables like the record year we just had, with a record number of days of frozen and snow-covered ground.

They’re meant to keep farmers farming — not in the courts and paying fines for cleaning out their barns.

And the sunset provision — which provides that after five years, the prohibitions would need the support of the ag committees to be continued? The Dispatch says, since the problem isn’t likely to go away within a few years, “that provision is counterproductive.”

I say let’s let the future tell us what only the future knows. If, in five years, we see that these prohibitions are working, and are beneficial, let’s continue them. Or, if necessary, even expand them.

But let’s not set prohibitions into motion based on today’s science and technology, when we don’t know what new technologies and realities will come our way.

Different views

I don’t mean to be critical of the Dispatch, but you just can’t get away with saying things like Ohio has been caught “flat-footed” by the blooms and that lawmakers are now caving to the “powerful farming lobby.”

It’s the “powerful farm lobby” that supported the nation’s first state-based fertilizer certification requirement, which became law last year and will require most farmers to be state-certified to apply fertilizer.

And that same “lobby” has given millions of dollars to research, including unbiased land grant university research, opened their fields to new conservation practices, new ditches and drainage systems and edge-of-field water testing, which is being led by university and federal research experts.

Part of the problem is who the Dispatch got their information from — the friendly sounding Ohio Environmental Council — which sends its “director of agricultural and water policy” to statehouse meetings, to lobby for and ratchet up as much regulation against the farmers as he can.

Claiming to represent the environmental concerns, Adam Rissien has spoken against the sunset clause, and against giving farmers warnings instead of fines, and against some of the exceptions that allow farmers to apply manure in winter, if it’s to a growing crop.

Finding loopholes

Rissien’s ability for pointing out the perceived “loopholes” in the bill is unlike any farmer I know. He seems to insinuate that farmers will look for ways around the bill, instead of comply.

If you really wanted to find a way around the bill, you ought to read his analysis of it, and all the amendments he suggests.

Of course, everything he argues for is based on the need for a clean and healthy lake, and making sure that we don’t have another drinking water scare like last year’s drinking water ban in Toledo. We can all agree to that much.

Farmers and environment

But we need to remember that most farmers — by nature of their business — are already environmentalists and conservationists. They already know what is at stake, and, like the people of Toledo, they, too, use the lake and drink its water.

They’re suggesting and approving of new rules, new regulations and new ways of doing business. They know that if they don’t do their part, things are only going to get worse, and higher powers will take over the situation.

The farmers are taking action, unprecedented action, and they could use a little more respect and support.

Related Coverage:

Ohio House passes nutrient bill (March 11)

Ohio Senate passes water quality bill (Feb. 19)

Governor’s budget includes water quality plans.

Senate moving ahead with water quality regulation.

House Ag Committee holds hearings on water quality bill.

House approves new manure application rules (H.B. 490)

Toledo drinking water barn (August, 2014)

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