Farmers should plan ahead as water issues heat up

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Master Farmer Award
John Motter (left) and Allen Dean, grain farmers from northwestern Ohio, were recipients of this year's Master Farmer Award.

ADA, Ohio —As public scrutiny and the threat of litigation over water quality mount, grain farmers at this year’s Conservation Tillage and Technology Conference were reminded of the importance of being proactive and keeping good records.

The annual event was held March 5-6, one week after Toledo voters gave Lake Erie its own bill of rights, a loosely defined set of legal protections that farmers worry could result in lawsuits and legal battles over commonly accepted farming practices.

“One of the most fundamental things” a farmer can do is develop a nutrient management plan, said Kip Studer, a nutrient management specialist with the Ohio Department of Agriculture.

Tracking nutrients

A good nutrient management plan helps the farmer track the rate, source, timing and placement of each nutrient applied to the farm, and provides “some validity” for the farmer to protect his or herself if arguments arise.

Related: Ohio Master Farmers, top crop adviser named.

Some farmers are required to have nutrient management plans, because of the size and type of their operation, or if it’s located within a distressed watershed. But there is a growing consensus across the state that nutrient plans should be more widely adopted.

Last year, former Ohio Gov. John Kasich and his administration pushed to have eight watersheds in northwestern Ohio declared “in distress,” and requiring those same farmers to have nutrient management plans. Farmers and conservation leaders said that plan was too costly and cumbersome to implement as the governor prescribed, but many agreed that nutrient management plans, when written and followed, can make a significant improvement in water quality.

According to Studer, a plan should contain about 13 different things, mostly related to what farmers call the 4Rs, or the right rate, source, timing and placement. The plans are usually developed with a conservation specialist, and rely on record keeping and action by the farmer.

“Records are going to be integral to your defense, if you ever get a complaint,” Studer said.

Right to farm

In a separate talk, Leah Curtis, policy counsel with Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, said farmers should keep an eye on the livestock-related lawsuits in North Carolina, where about 500 plaintiffs have sued Smithfield Foods division Murphy-Brown, over nuisance issues related to swine farms.

Curtis said the lawsuits are against the corporate entity, but in effect, hurt the family-owned farms that produce for Smithfield.

North Carolina has its own “right to farm” language, intended to protect farmers against nuisance lawsuits, but Curtis said the federal judge who decided the cases determined that many of the people suing had been living in the area for as long as the swine farms existed, and were not newly moving into farm country — as is often the case when nuisance claims arise.

Jurors awarded $473.5 million in the largest of the three cases already decided, but a state law capped payment on that case at $94 million.

Still, the numbers were large, and Curtis reminded farmers that Ohio and other states should take a closer look at what they’re doing to protect farmers, and how their own state law might hold up.

“It is a big concern for all of agriculture and I think we in Ohio and every other state need to be taking a hard look at what does our law look like,” she said.

Ohio’s right to farm is protected in something known as Agricultural Districts — in which the farmer enrolls his acreage at the county level, in exchange for certain protections, and the opportunity to defer costs related to the extension of water, sewer and electric lines.

Learn more about Ag Districts in Ohio at the Ohio Dept. of Ag.

The qualifications for enrolling in an Ag District are the same as with CAUV ground, Curtis said, and farmers must enroll if they want nuisance protection.

“It’s probably one of our best and under-utilized tools that we have here in the state of Ohio,” she said.

Practical research

In a talk called “Practical On-Farm Research,” Purdue University Agronomist Bob Nielson talked about the importance of meaningful, on-farm research.

Nielson said farm research is easier and better than ever, thanks to improvements in precision technology, but farmers still need to pay close attention to details and form a good working relationship with the partnering researcher.

Nielson said today’s trials “are almost seamless for the grower,” and allow for easy changes in cropping pattern, or nutrient variability, thanks to computer software.

“There’s no question that it’s easy to do it, but it requires attention to detail and to work with researchers on the details,” he said.

Nielson said he prefers to work in field that are at least 30 acres, and finds that larger fields usually yield better results — contrary to past thinking that championed smaller fields and plots. Part of the reason bigger fields are better, he explained, is the opportunity to incorporate more variables, and because the width of the equipment often dictates a larger plot.

He said farmers should participate in on-farm research not only for themselves, but for the benefit of their industry. Often, the most meaningful data come from a lot of different farms — not just the host farm.

“The power of on-farm research lies when we can aggregate results from a number of trials. That allows us to develop more reliable recommendations for that broader geographic area,” he said.

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