SALEM, Ohio — Beginning in 2020, farmers in the Maumee River Watershed can receive funding to improve their conservation practices.
The four priorities are reducing phosphorus runoff, creating wetlands, fixing failing septic systems and preventing lead contamination. The Ohio budget set aside $172 million in July to fund the program.
Over the years, harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie have threatened human and animal health and drinking water quality. Scientists identified phosphorus runoff from farmland, usually from fertilizer and manure, as a major cause.
Farmers have felt targeted by discussions on water quality, with some struggling financially to implement better conservation practices. Some communities, particularly those near Lake Erie, have been frustrated by continuing water quality issues. They say farmers are not doing their part.
Some farmers have been searching for solutions and trying to improve transparency about their practices. Projects, including the Blanchard River Demonstration Farms Network, have explored ways to reduce phosphorus runoff from farms.
H2Ohio will put money behind proven conservation practices for farmers and bring together members of the farming, environmental, conservation and research communities to address Lake Erie’s water quality issues, according to Heather Taylor-Miesle, co-chair of OACI and executive director of the Ohio Environmental Council.
To enroll in the program, farmers need to apply for certification.
Ohio Federation of Soil and Water Conservation Districts Chief Executive Officer Janelle Mead said farmers seeking certification will be evaluated in four categories including soil testing, nutrient application, nutrient placement and field management and construction practices.
Farms that score too low to qualify will receive information and resources to improve.
Farmers in the program will develop and implement nutrient management plans that use a combination of 10 best practices for phosphorus reduction, established in part by the Ohio Agricultural Conservation Initiative. Farmers will develop individual plans focusing on the practices that are the most effective for their farms.
These practices range from practices for fertilizing, to managing drainage water and incorporating wetlands and buffers at the edges of fields, to using cover crops and crop rotations.
The program will start in 2020 with the Maumee River Watershed and Lake Erie, but will eventually expand to other parts of the state.
Farmers are not currently required to enroll, but each county in the Maumee River Watershed has a target for phosphorus runoff.
Scott Higgins, co-chair of OACI and CEO of the Ohio Dairy Producers Association, said the certification program would allow researchers to assess and measure the impact of these conservation practices and report back to the public, in addition to identifying and funding farmers who want to improve.
Higgins said these measurements will help set goals for farmer participation.
The OACI has members from agricultural commodity groups, environmental and conservation groups and researchers.
Taylor-Miesle said, in addition to working on water quality, OACI and H2Ohio represent an effort for these groups to work together, instead of against each other.
“When people come together and work towards solutions, and start to really understand the context of the problem … that’s when we make progress,” she said. “For too long, this issue has been about warring factions.”
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