Ohio lawmakers review fertilizer bill

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Zehringer testifying
James Zehringer, director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, testified about the progress of S.B. 1 during a Statehouse meeting June 5.

COLUMBUS — Nearly three years have passed since Ohio’s nutrient law went into effect (S.B. 1), which bans the application of fertilizer and manure to frozen or saturated ground in northwestern Ohio.

Keeping with one of the law’s requirements, members of the House and Senate agriculture committees held a joint meeting June 5 at the Statehouse, to review the law’s effect so far.

Testimony was heard by three state agencies — the Department of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Natural Resources. Farm and commodity groups also testified, as did the state’s environmental and conservation groups.

Tim Derickson, assistant director at ODA, said the nutrient law “enacted important regulations that have made positive impacts on water quality in the Western Basin of Lake Erie.”

The law specifically banned farmers within the watershed from applying manure or fertilizer to frozen- or snow-covered ground, or saturated ground, unless the nutrients are applied to a growing crop, such as a cover crop.

Derickson said that following the initial educational period for farmers, “the department found the vast majority of producers and facilities were able and willing to comply with these new regulations.”

The violations

According to his testimony, there were two violations in 2016, two in 2017, and 17 so far this year.

Derickson said he believes the higher number of violations this year is attributable to the expiration of exemptions that had been granted — and the harsher winter, which saw cold weather carry into spring.

He suggested the law be amended to provide greater clarity as to what defines a “growing crop.”

Although a “growing crop” allows a farmer to apply during frozen and snow-covered conditions, he suggested the state adopt a definition that would require the crop provide at least 90 percent surface cover — the same definition as found in federal standards.

The requirement for surface cover would help define what exactly counts as a “growing crop,” and would be more likely to prevent nutrient runoff.

Right direction

James Zehringer, director of the Department of Natural Resources, said S.B. 1 was “a step in the right direction,” with more action needed if the state is going to meet its 40 percent reduction in phosphorus load by 2025 — a separate agreement signed by the leaders of Ohio, Michigan, and Ontario, Canada.

Zehringer, who previously farmed in Mercer County, near Grand Lake St. Marys, said the state’s response to the water quality crisis in that lake could also be applied to Lake Erie.

Grand Lake was declared “a watershed in distress,” he said, and the stakeholders developed regulations that significantly reduced the amount of phosphorus entering the lake, using a winter manure application ban as one of the tools.

Zehringer shared data from the manure ban, which showed a reduction in dissolved reactive phosphorus in Grand Lake St. Marys of 18 percent, and 46 percent of particulate phosphorus — from 2011 through 2016.

“(The Lake Erie bill) was a similar step in the right direction, but with the recurrence of algal blooms and fish kills in the Western Basin since its passage, ODNR recognizes that more needs to be done to keep our nutrients on the land, if we are to meet our goals by 2025,” he said.

While most of the state’s farm and environmental groups supported the Lake Erie bill, they said it also created some new challenges for livestock farmers — because they were forced to apply manure in fewer days or add more storage — both can be costly.

Academic research

Greg LaBarge, representing Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, said it’s important that the university continue to provide farmers and non-farmers objective, unbiased information to improve the situation.

Like others who spoke, he said funding for research is limited, but very much needed. And, he said it’s important to keep the farmer’s own struggles in mind when asking for change.

“Changing farm practices can often be difficult, and balancing the economic realities of survival in an intensely competitive marketplace, with the goals of improving the environmental performance of agriculture, can be a huge challenge,” LaBarge said.

Bryan Humphries, director of the Ohio Livestock Coalition, said livestock farmers have seen an increase in expenditures related to manure storage and application since the bill went into effect, and that many are still waiting on federal funding to help offset the expense.

“There simply is not enough funding currently available to meet all livestock farmer’s needs,” he said.

Time is needed

Tony Seegers, director of state policy for Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, said the water quality problem took time to develop, and will take time to remedy.

One of the challenges, Seegers said, is that researchers are still studying how the phosphorus moves into Lake Erie — and where it originates.

He said there is evidence from the Carnegie Institution for Science that there may be enough phosphorus trapped in lake sediments alone, that could feed algal blooms for up to a decade.

Meanwhile, the farm groups said the evidence shows that less and less fertilizer is being applied. They cited USDA data that show a 13 percent reduction in phosphorus per acre, from 2003 to 2006, and they claimed that from 1993 to 2015, agricultural soil phosphorus levels in most Ohio counties are either the same or trending downward.

The Ohio Farmers Union, represented by President Joe Logan, suggested “more precise monitoring” and targeting of distressed watersheds, as the most efficient way of tackling the issue.

The OFU anticipates that Total Maximum Daily Load limits will soon be set for distressed watersheds, and the organization is committed to working on “agronomic and regulatory tools to address hot spots as they are identified.”

The OFU also suggested that part of the water quality problem comes from a difficult ag economy, which has forced livestock and crop farmers to expand to the point where they are not able to easily manage all of the challenges of their operation.

“In many cases, such expansions have pushed farm managers beyond their management comfort level, causing ‘shortcuts’ in operational techniques,” Logan said.

The House and Senate committee members are required to submit a summary and their recommendations to Ohio Gov. John Kasich, including any revisions they feel might be necessary.

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