COLUMBUS — As Ohio continues to discuss water quality challenges in Lake Erie, the Ohio Agriculture Conservation Initiative offered a glimpse of exactly what conservation practices look like in one Ohio watershed.
Nutrient runoff from farm fields in northwest Ohio has been linked to harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie. H2Ohio, Ohio’s water quality program, is aimed at helping farmers use more conservation practices in the region.
The OACI, a partnership between agriculture, conservation, environmental and research groups, assessed fields in the Lower Maumee watershed to find out what conservation practices farmers used 2021. The survey report gives farmers, environmentalists and researchers a baseline for what conservation looks like in that watershed, and shows where there’s room for improvement.
It will also allow researchers to better measure and understand what kind of impact H2Ohio has on the region when they return to the watershed for a follow up survey in three years.
The OACI released the report at the Ohio Federation of Soil and Water Conservation Districts annual meeting March 1, in Columbus, Ohio.
“We wanted to get a baseline of what conservation is in a watershed in one year, and then we can start tying those practices to some stream monitoring results,” said Kris Swartz, farmer and chair of OACI. “It’s going to be an ongoing process. But I think it’s going to be the first set of data that really gives us true, verifiable practices that are on the ground in one year.”
Researchers sampled 450 randomly selected crop production fields in the watershed, including fields already in conservation programs, and fields that are not in conservation programs. They sent surveys to farmers and landowners, and staff from soil and water conservation districts interviewed landowners or farm managers for each field.
“I want to highlight to everyone, this does represent all fields that were available” in the watershed, said John Fulton, professor and extension specialist with Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. “This report really reflects what farmers are doing within this HUC 8 watershed, and brings some statistical confidence that that’s reality.”
About 90% of the people researchers sent surveys to responded. Swartz attributed that to connections with local district staff.
“I get surveys all the time. And you know, people don’t return them, or the only people that return them kind of self-select themselves … so it’s not really valid,” Swartz said. “So, I think our statistics are much more solid than anything else we’ve had.”
Some practices were more widespread than expected. About 66% of the fields surveyed were enrolled in a conservation cost-share program. About 83% of those fields were also having soil sampled at least every three years, and most of those soil samples involved precision agriculture.
Jordan Hoewischer, director of water quality and research for the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, said that shows farmers who are interested in soil testing are doing it, and now it’s time to focus on helping farmers use more practices that allow them to put fertilizer where they need it, like variable-rate technology and injecting fertilizer into the ground.
For phosphorus, a key nutrient in the conversation around water quality in Lake Erie, about 15% of fields had it injected, and 40% of fields used a variable rate application. The survey also found 86% of fields relied on commercial fertilizer as a nutrient source, and about 12% relied on manure. Water management practices, like buffers and grassed waterways, were installed on 42% of fields.
Other practices were less common than the initiative hoped. Only about half of the fields were covered by voluntary nutrient management plans.
“I think that’s going to show some room for growth,” Swartz said. “I think when we come back to this watershed in three years, that number should be significantly higher, or we would expect it to be. If not, then we have to rethink our whole approach.”
The survey also looked at who owns and farms the fields it sampled. About 48% of the farmland was owned by the person who farmed it, and the other 52% was leased. But the same farmer managed 95% of the fields for three years or longer, which suggests farmers are very familiar with their fields in the watershed.
Hoewischer said it’s important to make sure lease agreements are solid so farmers are comfortable taking advantage of programs like H2Ohio to put more conservation practices on fields they lease.
The survey was done in early 2021, before H2Ohio practices hit the ground. That means when researchers come back to the Lower Maumee watershed for another survey in three years, they will be able to see how much of an impact H2Ohio had on farmers’ practices.
“I would think in this watershed, we’re going to see tremendous growth,” Swartz said. “I think we’re trending in the right direction. I’m curious to see how fast we can trend.”
The OACI is releasing a white paper of the report aimed more at the general public and state legislators. That will help the group show legislators what farmers are doing, as conversations around water quality continue.
This year, the OACI will do survey assessments in two more watersheds. The group plans to keep surveying watersheds at that rate, and to return to each watershed for surveys every three years, so it can measure progress. It also hopes to make connections between what practices farmers are using, and what stream monitoring in the watersheds is showing.
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