By Chris Henney, Ohio AgriBusiness Association
I doubt there are many (if any) readers who aren’t familiar with the Lake Erie algal blooms and the general challenges these blooms have created for farmers and ag retailers throughout Ohio.
Due to these ongoing blooms, Ohio agriculture has faced numerous demands over the years for stricter regulation of nutrient application. Most recently, and just a few months ago, then Gov. John Kasich signed an executive order that declared eight watersheds in Ohio’s Western Lake Erie Basin as impaired. This impairment designation would have mandated nearly 7,000 farmers to create timely, expensive, and complex nutrient management plans in a very short period and would have limited fertilizer application windows for farmers and ag retailers.
Over the years, and especially over the last year, Ohio’s 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program has been held up again and again as a shining example of how the agricultural industry and the environmental movement could work together to find proactive, voluntary solutions to nutrient loss issues. This unlikely alliance, along with a voluntary certification program now entering its sixth year, has enabled the Ohio AgriBusiness Association and the ag industry as a whole to convince legislators and regulators that we are serious about reducing agriculture’s contribution to the nutrient loading problem.
Last week, I joined Ohio Department of Agriculture Director Dorothy Pelanda in announcing new assistance programs for the Western Lake Erie Basin. Signed in 2018, Ohio Senate Bill 299 has provided $23.5 million for soil and water conservation districts (SWCD) located in the Western Lake Erie Basin (WLEB) for nutrient management, distributed over three programs:
- The Ohio Working Lands Program will encourage producers to establish year-round vegetative cover on eligible crop land. The program will promote the conversion, establishment, and maintenance of forage/hay land on certain cropland acres. Also, there will be a new incentive payment to encourage producers to re-enroll acreage through the Lake Erie Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program. This will help reach the 67,000-acreage goal and increase conservation efforts.
- The Nutrient Management Plan Development Program will be a partnership with the Ohio AgriBusiness Association, in which producers are reimbursed for soil testing and nutrient management plans. This would help to ensure the 4R principles are put into place.
- The Cost Share and Equipment Buy Down Program will provide producers with funds to purchase technological improvements to agricultural land, equipment, and structures to reduce nutrient loss.
The Ohio AgriBusiness Association is proud of the role our members will play in the Nutrient Management Plan Development Program. In addition to the traditional support ag retailers provide, a new pilot program is being developed which will enable farmers who are full-service customers of a 4R certified ag retailer to qualify for the benefits of a nutrient management plan without having to compile a full plan. The one-year pilot will kick off this spring and will be limited in acres and scope, but will be a good first step toward a broader program.
Lake Erie’s problems remain and there is no shortage of calls for further regulation. However, it is nice to see that the hard work we have put into building the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program is paying off. This new opportunity for certified retailers should encourage more retailers to participate in the program, which will result in more farmers practicing the 4Rs on their farms and, ultimately, mean less ag nutrient loading in Lake Erie.