LONDON, Ohio — The state’s water quality issues haven’t gone away — and neither has the topic at the Ohio Farm Science Review.
A group of OSU Extension experts led a panel discussion on water quality to help start the review, which began today at the Molly Caren Agricultural Center, in Madison County.
The year began on a promising note for Ohio’s farmers, who completed planting on time and under mostly ideal planting conditions. Early predictions for water quality were good — with new practices and new laws that farmers hoped would lead to less nutrient loss, and cleaner water.
Turn of events
Then came the rains — heavy rains that persisted through June and most of July. Nutrient loss was evident across the state, as crops turned yellow and showed obvious signs of nutrient depletion.
“We had extreme rain events,” that essentially “flushed the system,” said Sam Custer, OSU Extension educator from Darke County.
That “system” ultimately ended up in larger water bodies, like Lake Erie and the Ohio River — where water quality deteriorated. By mid-summer, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration forecast the summer algae bloom to be “severe,” possibly the second worst in recent history.
Glen Arnold, OSU Extension field management specialist, said large rain events played an important role in this year’s runoff issues, and according to weather data, large, two-inch rain events have actually doubled over the past 16 years.
That means more phosphorus and other nutrients are going to leave the field.
“If you’re going to have large rain events, you’re going to lose more off your fields,” he said.
The question for farmers at this year’s review — and at the past several reviews — is what can we do to stop nutrient loss.
The Ohio legislature approved legislation last year, and earlier this year, to require farmers to be certified to apply fertilizer, and to essentially ban winter application of nutrients that are not immediately incorporated into the soil.
But because the problem has not gone away — and because Lake Erie and other Ohio water bodies are still at risk — the pressure on farmers to do their part is unwavering.
Brent Sohngen, an OSU environmental economist, cast doubt that Ohio’s current nutrient regulations will be enough — especially if the state is to achieve the 40 percent phosphorus reduction that a state nutrient reduction taskforce is calling for.
Sohngen said in his opinion, the state’s most recent law banning winter application of nutrients in the western Lake Erie basin, won’t “have any effect on water quality,” because it focuses on a small part of the problem.
“Individual farmers are a minuscule part of the problem — even if they apply manure in the winter,” he said.
Instead, he’d like to see a broader regulatory approach — and sees a tax on phosphorus as the most effective and affordable way to clean up the water.
But farmers and researchers aren’t giving up on voluntary efforts — which include adopting new farming practices, better application of nutrients, and edge-of-field testing, to determine what’s working and what’s not.
Last year, more than 6,000 people in Ohio were trained to apply nutrients through the state certification process, said Custer. Those numbers continue to increase, as more farmers become education on the proper rate, time, application and place to apply nutrients.
Arnold said farmers are actively working with researchers on edge-of-field testing, which should soon produce some results, to show what’s coming off their fields. The results are also expected to help identify farming practices that are beneficial, as well as those that may need some improvement.
Arnold said farmers are “very curious” to know how much phosphorus is coming off their fields — for economic reasons and for the good of the environment.
He said regulations can be beneficial, but only when the problem is truly understood.
“If you don’t understand the question to start with, (regulations) may or may not make a difference.”
Sohngen said it doesn’t make sense to “use a sledgehammer if you don’t have to,” but he doubts the voluntary compliance will ever go far enough.
As for the heavy rains that affected this year’s runoff — Sohngen said farmers hesitate to accept climate change, but now find themselves grappling with the consequences.
The Farm Science Review continues through Sept. 24, at the Molly Caren Agricultural Center in London, Ohio. Farm and Dairy will have coverage throughout the week.
See these seven stories on the water quality bill:
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