American Farmland Trust focusing on water quality in Upper Scioto

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Over the last few years, the Western Lake Erie Basin has grabbed the bulk of headlines and funding for water quality challenges. But Ohio Environmental Protection Agency reports show the Scioto watershed is the second highest for phosphorus and nitrogen loads in the state.

The American Farmland Trust hopes to get that area next in line for H2Ohio funding and other assistance to address water quality issues connected to farmland with its “Farming for Cleaner Water” project, in the Upper Scioto River Watershed.

“We’re building the case that we’re shovel-ready,” said Mark Wilson, manager for the project.

The Upper Scioto watershed, north of Columbus, supplies nearly half of Columbus’s water, and in total, drinking water for over a million people in central Ohio. But that water has had consistently high nitrate levels — a couple of years ago, Columbus had to issue a drinking water alert and had to hand out bottles of water in some communities.

The city installed a treatment system to help address the water quality. But there’s also room to address the problem at its source by reducing nutrient runoff from farmland.

Project

The project started with a proposal to the Harte Charitable Foundation, in Texas. The foundation has contributed $750,000 to the project over several years.

The American Farmland Trust has also applied for and received other funding, including a recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant of about $850,000.

The goal is to reduce nitrates in the water by 30%. Researchers are using models similar to some of the models being used in the Lake Erie watershed to figure out exactly what that will take.

Outreach

Part of the project is outreach to farmers. Some aren’t convinced that soil health practices can be profitable and have environmental benefits.

“You’ll hear a farmer say, ‘it works there, but it doesn’t work here,’” said Brian Brandt, agriculture conservation innovations director for the American Farmland Trust. “So, one of the things that we’re really trying to do is bring information … to help farmers overcome that barrier.”

The American Farmland Trust worked with two farmers in the Upper Scioto to put together case studies on soil health. The studies break down costs and financial benefits of using soil health practices.

Eric Niemeyer, of MadMax Farms, one of the case study farms in the Upper Scioto watershed, said some farmers hesitate to try new conservation practices because it can be hard to measure the benefits.

Niemeyer, who grows corn, soybeans, wheat and pumpkins in Delaware and Marion counties, decided to try no till and cover crops to improve his soil health so he could cut down on nutrient costs, and so his fields could handle water better.

Since then, he’s been able to cut back on nitrogen and phosphorus application. He’s stopped using fungicides on everything except for wheat, and stopped using seed treatment on soybeans.

Landowners

Outreach also involves getting landowners who don’t farm on board. About half of the farmland in the watershed, and across the Midwest, is rented land. A lot of people are farming on land they don’t own — and a lot of landowners may not be closely connected with the farming that happens on their land.

Through workshops, the American Farmland Trust teaches landowners about soil health and conservation practices so they understand those concepts and can discuss them with farmers. This can help them be more proactive on conservation, or at least understand what farmers need to adopt soil health practices.

“Many times, farmers don’t want to make that investment for some practices on land they rent,” Brandt said.

In some cases, farmers only have a yearly rental agreement. If landowners have a better understanding of conservation and land management, they might be more willing to make a longer term agreement, for three to five years, so farmers can justify making that investment.

Payments

The other part of the project is creating a program to pay for ecosystem services in the watershed, with the Soil and Water Outcomes Fund, an ecosystem service program formed by a partnership between several agricultural organizations.

The program will use models to estimate how much a farmer’s actions will reduce nitrogen or other nutrient runoff, and determine payments based on that. Monitoring water quality helps with refining models and making sure those estimates are as accurate as possible.

A pilot version launched recently with a goal of enrolling 10,000 acres across the watershed this year. The plan is to scale that up over the next few years.

Some of the funding for this part of the program is coming from grants, including the EPA grant. If the pilot program goes well, Brandt said, he hopes municipalities and corporations will be willing to make investments in it. For example, cities like Columbus may be interested in funding soil health practices if they find keeping nutrients out of the water is cheaper than removing them through water treatment.

Consumer demand is also driving some companies to invest in sustainability and regenerative farming, which could be another source of funding for the project.

“It’s a growing trend,” Wilson said. “I think forward-thinking companies like those see it in their best interests to develop a sustainable brand … that would take some of the pressure off of the government … to fund these kinds of things.”

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