Conservation projects aim to fill gap left by traditional funding

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American Farmland Trust grant money.

SALEM, Ohio — Four Columbiana County farmers never guessed the pollution output of power plants along the Ohio River would end up benefiting their farm operation.

Mahoning, Columbiana and Jefferson soil and water conservation districts were approached about finding conservation projects that would help to remove phosphorus and nitrogen from the Ohio River basin.

Columbiana County

Only one project was presented in Mahoning County. No projects in Jefferson County fit the criteria. However, four projects were selected in Columbiana County.

Pete Conkle, Columbiana Soil and Water Conservation District, led the program in Columbiana County. He said he sometimes talks to farmers who want to do conservation projects but don’t want to have to go through the rating system or deal with the USDA’s Farm Service Agency to get on the list for funding.

The funding for these projects, however, was funneled through the American Farmland Trust and funded through the Electric Power Research Institute.

Ohio River

The program was created to address pollution from the coal-burning power plants along the Ohio River. The main pollutant from the power plants is nitrogen, so the goal was to find ways to limit how much nitrogen reaches the river from other sources.

Each farmer in Columbiana County received $10,000 toward their projects, Conkle said. Any cost above that was paid for by the farmers. In addition to project funding, each project’s engineering was completed by the SWCD at no cost to the farmer.

Four farms

The four farms chosen for projects were Gerald Smith, near Wellsville, Ohio; Steve Ketchum, outside of Summitville; Ken Merrick, south of New Alexander; and Elton Lowmiller, outside of Minerva.

Conkle visited each farm to identify what can be done to fix any problems found, and calculated a cost estimate, including any in-kind help by the farmer. Then the SWCD works with a formula to figure out how much phosphorus and nitrogen reduction will be achieved through the project.

Milkhouse projects

Conkle said three of the projects involved milkhouse projects because they helped to generate the most nitrogen and phosphorus credits.

Ketchum’s project also involved milkhouse waste. The project on his farm gathers the milkhouse waste and pumps it across a hill and disperses it into a sprinkler system. It is then sprayed on the pasture, which helps keep the nitrogen and phosphorus out of the creek.

“I knew it had been a problem,” said Ketchum in regards to the milkhouse waste.
Ketchum milks 75 cows and raises 75 heifers on his farm and balances rotational grazing and feeding a total mixed ration to the dairy herd.

He said the project is fairly new, with construction finishing in October 2014, but so far the system is working.

Smith’s project also involved channeling the milkhouse waste away from entering a waterway.

Dairy projects

Lowmiller’s project also involved treating milkhouse waste. The farm installed septic tanks to capture the milkhouse waste, which is then pumped into the manure pit. It helps to remove the nutrients and stopped potential pollution.

They also revamped the feed lot and were able to stop the spread of manure onto the area behind the cement pad.

Beef and hog operation

Merrick’s project was the only one that didn’t involve a dairy farm.
Merrick raises grassfed beef and pasture raised pork. He wanted to stop the nitrogen from entering Conser Run Creek, which is at the back of his property.

He extended a heavy use pad that he already had built, created an alternative water supply on the pad and fenced off the stream in an effort to keep cattle out of the stream. This let him manage the pasture better with more fencing options.

He said the downfall was that there was a limit on the money. He hopes more will be made available because he has more projects he would like to complete on his 35-acre farm.

Merrick said the herd has grown since he finished the project. He is currently feeding 51 head of beef cattle and sees the number increasing to 60 this winter and up to 70 next year.

“Without this project, I would have had a disaster this winter,” said Merrick as he talks about what the project has meant to his operation.

He added it would have taken another three or four years to get a project like this done if he was doing it himself.

Conservation funding

Conkle said the farms that received the funding are not the usual audience when it comes to conservation funding.
Ketchum said the project was a good fit for him because he didn’t want to go through a government program for the funding because of the “hoops you have to jump through, and the strings often attached to funding,”

Merrick said the project fit his smaller operation perfectly. He said because his farm doesn’t always fit the traditional mold, Farm Service Agency program funding often goes to bigger farming operations.

One obligation

Every farmer who received the funding, does have one main obligation — they have to keep the projects operating for 10 years.
Conkle said the future for producers will mean they need to fence cattle out of the streams, so developing paddocks now will benefit them.

Conkle also said the projects have also meant a change in the workload on the farm and management.

Regulations

Conkle said farmers need to realize, impending regulations will mean removing nitrogen and phosphorus from perennial streams, and by waiting, the cost only grows for the projects.
He said the producers involved in this project realized that and wanted to do something about the issues on their farms.

“It’s nice to see these farmers willing to step up and change what is necessary,” said Conkle.
“If producers work with us and do it now, they will be better off to get ahead of the curve,” he added.

Conkle said there is the possibility of more funding becoming available, if the nitrogen and phosphorus credits gained are sold. He added that this project was a great shot in the arm for conservation in Columbiana County. The projects are removing a lot of nutrients in a small amount of time.

Besides Ohio, projects were also funded in Indiana and Kentucky in the Middle Ohio Watershed. Projects ranged from cover crops, nutrient management, vegetative filter strips, grass waterways, livestock exclusion, heavy use protection pad areas and conservation tillage.

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