Lots of Ohio farmers are already using conservation practices that protect water quality, but nobody has a good way to measure or track those practices. The Ohio Agriculture Conservation Initiative is working to change that with plans to assess existing farming practices. The OACI is also launching a voluntary certification program that will help farmers record and verify their conservation efforts while working toward higher levels of conservation.
Participants at the recent Ohio Grain Farmers Symposium heard updates on OACI efforts and the importance of showing results. “We really want to have data that shows progress,” explained Tadd Nicholson, executive director for the Ohio Corn and Wheat Growers Association. The state of Ohio is providing funding to support conservation efforts through the H2Ohio program and expects to see measurable improvements. OACI assessment and certification efforts are aimed at demonstrating that progress. “We’re about out of options. If we fail to do this, there’s only one other way,” he added, referring to increased government regulation of agriculture.
Kirk Merritt, executive director of the Ohio Soybean Association, called the broad-based involvement in the OACI unprecedented. The effort involves both agricultural and environmental groups, as well as representatives from universities and government agencies to focus on science-based, voluntary conservation practices.
“It’s an effort to acknowledge what farmers are already doing and encourage improvement wherever possible,” he explained. “I’m optimistic it’s a step in the right direction.”
CREDIT FOR COVERS: Cover crops are listed by both the Ohio Agriculture Conservation Initiative and H2Ohio as conservation practices for protection of water quality.
Ohio State University is helping facilitate the OACI efforts. Scott Shearer, chair of OSU’s Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering, explained the need for more information on existing practices. “If you don’t know where you are, how do you know if you’ve moved the needle?”
The OACI’s work will be guided by a council of 11 directors, including five farmers, three representatives of ag organizations and three representatives from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Those directors will each serve three years with staggered terms on the council. An advisory committee, with representatives from universities, research institutions and government agencies, will work with the council. OSU and a group of field auditors will manage and aggregate data, and the Ohio Federation of Soil and Water Conservation Districts will administer the certification program.
The OACI has identified a group of best management practices related to soil testing, nutrient application, nutrient placement, field management and water management structures. Those best management practices turned out to be very similar to those identified by the Ohio Department of Agriculture for funding through the H2Ohio program, Shearer noted, even though the two groups worked on their lists from different perspectives.
As the H2Ohio program is phased in over the next few years, funding for practices and structures to protect water quality will be available to OACI-certified farmers as well as those not yet certified. Those who don’t meet the minimum certification criteria will be offered tools to help create an action plan for certification and will be eligible for funds to support their work. Meanwhile, farmers with certification will be eligible for funding to support continuous improvement of conservation and nutrient management practices.
Currently, the OACI is in the assessment phase to identify what best management practices farmers are already using. The next step will be to provide the certification program to help farmers voluntarily track their own conservation practices and encourage them to adopt more that fit their operations.
The OACI was first organized early in 2019 and will be starting assessments and a pilot certification program in early 2020. Jessica D’Ambrosio, Western Lake Erie Basin Ag Project director with The Nature Conservancy, explained that the OACI will start with a survey of fields in the Lower Maumee Watershed. The OACI will pick a random sample of 500 fields to be surveyed, and use trained professionals to collect data from the farmers, recording management data for those fields. Those data will be kept confidential and analyzed in aggregate to protect the confidentiality of the farmers involved, she stressed. The Iowa Center for Survey Statistics and Methodology is contracted to provide the final survey design.
While data collection is focused on fields, the certification program will cover entire farms. “We want you to become certified on your whole operation,” D’Ambrosio explained. A pilot certification program is set to be launched early in 2020 for farmers in the Maumee River Watershed. Farmers located in the 14 counties within the Maumee River Watershed will be able to enroll in H2Ohio programs for funding incentives beginning Feb. 1. In coming years, H2Ohio incentives, as well as OACI field assessments and certification, will be expanded to cover the entire state.
To earn certification, farmers will use a mobile app to self-report on their use of soil testing, nutrient application methods, nutrient placement and field management practices, as well as conservation structures such as blind inlets, surface inlet buffers, grassed waterways, controlled drainage structures, two-stage ditches, and phosphorus filters or bioreactors. Each conservation practice will earn a score that will be used to calculate the farmer’s certification level.
The certification program for farmers is similar to the 4-R certification program already being used by ag retailers in the state, D’Ambrosio pointed out, but it is not meant to replace it. Instead it is meant as another way to help farmers protect water quality.
Eventually, D’Ambrosio added, she hopes to see the certification program provide a little peer pressure to farmers who aren’t using best management practices to encourage them to make changes. “We want to get people in the door,” she said.
With the funding available through H2Ohio, there is more money than ever before coming to agriculture for conservation practices to protect water quality, D’Ambrosio added. But that funding comes with an expectation that the money spent will show results. “Adoption of practices is the name of the game — we’ve got to get there,” she stressed.
Keck writes from Raymond, Ohio.