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Serving: OH
water in drainage ditch Gail Keck
WATER WOES: High algal blooms are predicted for later this year, and more demands from water quality advocates are likely to follow.

Keeping it clean

The Back 40: Farmers in the Western Lake Erie Basin are to have new assistance.

Water saturating farm fields caused plenty of problems this spring for farmers trying to plant, but all that water might not be done causing trouble, even after it flows away toward Lake Erie or the Gulf of Mexico.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is predicting record-high algal blooms for Lake Erie this summer and a larger-than-average area of hypoxia (a dead zone) in the gulf. If those predictions turn out to be accurate, I have another prediction: We’ll hear a renewed outcry from water quality advocates demanding more restrictions on farm fertilizers.

Last year, Ohio’s ag community justifiably pushed back against Gov. John Kasich’s plan to designate eight northwest Ohio watersheds as distressed, and enact stricter regulations of farms there. That distressed watershed plan faded away after the Ohio Soil and Water Conservation Commission refused to follow along with the governor’s plan without more certainty about the implications for farmers.

Even so, the commission and the ag community saw the need to do more to protect water quality. Now, the state seems well-positioned to clear up ag contributions to water quality problems for both the Lake Erie and Ohio River watersheds.

We have a new governor who appreciates the importance of the state’s ag economy and respects the work ag has already done to protect water quality. Ohio Senate Bill 299, passed by the Ohio Legislature last September, is providing an extra $23.5 million to address water quality issues in the Western Lake Erie Basin.

And Gov. Mike DeWine is pushing for longer-term water quality funding for the entire state with his H2Ohio Initiative being considered as part of the state budget.

DeWine has appointed a meticulous new director of agriculture who has made a point of listening to farmers’ concerns and thoroughly researching issues. Under the leadership of Dorothy Pelanda, ag director, the Ohio Department of Agriculture and local soil and water conservation districts are administering new assistance programs for farmers in the Western Lake Erie Basin.

Working together on water quality

One focus is to encourage farmers to establish vegetative cover year-round on eligible cropland, using forage crops, cover crops and fall-planted small-grain crops. New incentive payments are also available to encourage landowners to re-enroll fields in the Lake Erie Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program.

Meanwhile, ag organizations are collaborating with conservation groups and researchers as part of a newly organized Agriculture Conservation Working Group, which includes the Ohio AgriBusiness Association, Ohio Cattlemen’s Association, Ohio Corn and Wheat Growers Association, Ohio Dairy Producers Association, Ohio Environmental Council, Ohio Farm Bureau Federation,  Ohio Federation of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, Ohio Pork Council, Ohio Poultry Association, Ohio Sheep Improvement Association, Ohio Soybean Council, the National Center for Water Quality Research at Heidelberg University and The Nature Conservancy.

The group is working to evaluate current conservation and nutrient management practices used by farmers and to set up a voluntary nutrient management plan certification program similar to the 4R program used by ag nutrient retailers. The plan is to have a framework for the certification program in place by the end of the year.

No matter what the ag community does, the public will continue to demand more as long as water quality problems continue. That’s why it’s so important for the ag industry to support ongoing research and follow practices that have already been shown to keep water clean. On the other hand, research can also help clarify what is realistically within farmers’ ability to manage, and what is beyond their control.

Going forward, the role of farmers will be to follow through and apply practices that are appropriate for their farms. — whenever it ever stops raining long enough that they can get in the fields. 

Keck writes from Raymond, Ohio.

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