Responsible Use of Fertilizer, Manure Will Protect Water

Lake Erie
Lake Erie photo courtesy of U.S. EPA
Wednesday, January 16, 2013

OEC lauds agriculture industry, Kasich administration for encouraging responsible use of fertilizer and manure.

Eco group credits ag-coalition and Kasich team for exerting leadership to reduce toxic algae growth in Ohio waters fueled by farm field runoff

The Ohio Environmental Council is praising the agriculture industry and the administration of Ohio Governor John Kasich for their actions to encourage more responsible use of fertilizer and manure in farming.

Twenty agriculture organizations representing producers and related groups are distributing a joint letter to Ohio farmers and ranchers, exhorting them to more responsibly manage the application of nutrients from fertilizer and animal manure on their farm fields to help clean up the state’s water resources.

The letter urges farmers to commit to the principles of “4R Nutrient Stewardship:” using the right fertilizer source, at the right rate, at the right time, and with the right placement. It also includes the warning: “If farmers don’t do this on their own, there will be federal and state laws and regulations that will mandate how you farm.”

The effort was jump-started by a comprehensive state government report issued in March 2012 that urged prompt action to cut the amount of dissolved phosphorus and other agricultural nutrients entering into Ohio’s streams and water resources. The report was issued by a working group of stakeholders chaired by Ohio Department of Agriculture Director David Daniels, Ohio EPA Director Scott Nally, and Ohio Department of Natural Resources Director James Zehringer.

The ag-coalition letter urges farmers to adopt conservation measures to help stem the growing tide of harmful algal blooms that have plagued many Ohio lakes, including Grand Lake St. Marys and the western basin of Lake Erie. Nutrient-rich runoff from farm fields, city streets, and other sources can fuel the growth of dangerous algae. The algae produce toxins that can sicken people, pets, and fish, and disrupt aquatic ecosystems.

The Kasich administration report from last year along with a previous state report from 2010 clearly concluded that excessive amounts of dissolved phosphorus and other nutrients are the main drivers of these harmful algal blooms. The reports identified agricultural operations as a prime source of nutrient pollution.

Last month, the Ohio DNR Division of Soil and Water Resources ordered five farmers in the Grand Lake St. Marys drainage basin to take immediate action to reduce nutrient runoff from their farms and feedlots. The western Ohio lake—the largest inland lake in Ohio—has been plagued by several serious toxic algae outbreaks.

The Kasich administration has invested some $8 million in water treatments for Grand Lake St. Marys in western Ohio. The state has committed an additional $3 million to start nutrient clean-up efforts in Lake Erie.

Each year, farmers add tons of phosphorus and nitrogen to fields to boost crop yields. Ohio farmers in the Lake Erie drainage basin apply an estimated 43,700 tons of phosphorus through the application of fertilizer and animal manure. A portion of the fertilizer and manure is lost from crop fields through surface runoff from rain and snow melt and through subsurface drain tiles; the nutrients eventually drain to streams and lakes.

For decades, many farmers have cooperated with state and federal conservation agencies to qualify for funding assistance for equipment and technical advice to fine tune the proper rate of nutrient application and reduce soil erosion and runoff.

In 2011, farmers and ranchers used $11.9 million from the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) to upgrade equipment, plant grass filter strips and cover crops, and take other measures to help mange water use, protect water quality, control erosion, and incorporate conservation into their farming operations.

“The Ohio Environmental Council fully supports the use of voluntary conservation practices by farmers,” said Joe Logan, Director of Agriculture Programs for the OEC. Logan, a fifth-generation grain and beef farmer from Trumbull County, participated in a work group appointed by the three state agency directors to help draft recommendations for the March, 2012 report by ODA, OEPA, and ODNR.

“These programs are helping to keep the soil and nutrients on the field and out of the stream. But voluntary efforts alone may not be sufficient to accomplish the magnitude of nutrient reductions necessary to prevent toxic algae and to fully restore water quality in western Lake Erie and Ohio’s inland lakes and streams.

“Most farmers are conservation minded. But some, due to economic circumstances or their traditional farming practices, simply have not been willing to take full advantage of these programs. We hope the ag-coalition letter helps motivate those farmers to take the matter of responsible nutrient use more seriously.

“In recent years, nutrient pollution and harmful algae problems have grown, despite on-going voluntary conservation initiatives. In order to restore the health of Lake Erie, Grand Lake St. Marys, and Ohio’s other inland lakes, all farmers and ranchers should help conserve soil and water resources. Ultimately, though, a regulatory lever may be needed to make that happen.

“Farmers are a fundamental part of Ohio’s economy. And agriculture is one of several contributors to our nutrient runoff pollution. But agriculture most certainly must be part of the solution, and that is why we salute the ag-coalition for its letter. Our state and nation must resolve the nutrient issue, likely through a combination of voluntary efforts, eligibility requirements for Farm Bill programs, and direct regulatory requirements.

“The OEC is committed to continuing to work with all stakeholders toward finding responsible and effective solutions that will work for farmers, for clean water, and for all the citizens of Ohio,” concluded Logan.