The Press Newspaper, January 4, 2016 | by J. Patrick Eaken

Bureau’s message — ‘Farmers statewide getting involved’

As Dr. Larry M. Antosch stepped up the microphone at an environmental forum, he first quoted from Ohio Farm Bureau testimony to state legislators:

“…Clean water cannot come at the expense of food production, nor can farming trump the need for clean water. Fortunately, we can have both. One is not exclusive of the other…”

Dr. Antosch, the OFB senior director for policy development and environmental policy, says that statewide, farmers are taking on, voluntarily and collaboratively, programs that will help reduce harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie. He says agribusiness associations are getting the message out to the farming community on how to meet new requirements set by Senate bills 1 and 150, both enacted in 2015.

“Why should Ohio farmers have an aggressive approach? One, it’s the right thing to do,” Dr. Antosch said. “We all have an influence and impact and have a desire for good, high quality water and available water resources. We all have to do our part. Agriculture realizes that we are part of the problem and we are part of the solution. We all want to do what we can to address the issue.”

Researchers from Heidelberg University and other academic institutions that monitor the Western Lake Erie Watershed (WLEW) say the majority of the dissolved reactive phosphorous feeding the harmful algae comes from non-point sources, like farms that apply fertilizer into the soil to feed cash crops.

The Toledo Water Crisis in August 2014 left nearly a half million people without drinking water for a weekend because of toxic microcystin from the harmful algae and it drew national media attention.

“When you start getting into human health concerns, you always raise the order of magnitude of concern higher and higher and higher,” Dr. Antosch said.

Dr. Antosch was speaking to about 100 guests at a Lake Erie Improvement Association-hosted breakfast forum at the Catawba Island Club in December.

A speaker who followed, Verna Harrison of the Chesapeake Conservancy,* warned that disagreements on how to stop harmful algal blooms may have to be settled by lawsuits, as they have in Maryland. In Lucas County, commissioners have stated that litigation is a tool they would consider, if necessary. Dr. Antosch admits that litigation may have its place.

“The Clean Water Act and U.S. EPA are always out there. There are things we have to consider,” Dr. Antosch said. “Lawsuits, I won’t say are the wildcard, but there are some lawsuits out there that could have major impacts on what happens in Ohio and across the nation in terms of water quality and nutrient management.

“We’re also looking at how do we get involved and make sure we’re engaged in discussions related to the 40 percent phosphorous reduction goals established from the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, the phosphorous reduction task force, the collaborative agreement that Ohio, Michigan and Canada signed — all efforts looking at that? What can we do and how can we work toward that solution?”

Timing, placement of nutrients
Dr. Antosch said the OFB has put into place tools to help Western Lake Erie Basin farmers come into compliance with S.B. 1, legislation primarily sponsored by Sen. Randy Gardner and signed into law by Governor John Kasich.

“It’s getting into that timing and placement of nutrients,” Dr. Antosch said. “Senate Bill 1 is a restriction on the application of nutrients during the high risk times — during frozen, snow-covered ground conditions, times when the ground is saturated, times when a rain event is coming soon. So, we are looking at how we can eliminate or reduce the off-sight transport of nutrients, and it also gets involved from the standpoint of incorporation — making sure that you’re incorporating materials as they are going down, making sure that nutrients remain in place as they come in contact with the soil.”

Dr. Antosch said Ohio State has hired, with the help of outside sources, four individuals who will work with WLEW farmers to help them produce a nutrient management plan. He says once farmers have a nutrient management plan, they should submit that to their respective soil and water district for review and approval.

“That’s one way of having an affirmative defense,” Dr. Antosch said.

Another piece of legislation signed into law, S.B. 150, requires anyone who applies fertilizer on more than 150 acres to be certified by the state.

“We knew that because of the requirements of S.B. 150, in which folks have a three-year time period in which to be certified, we’re promoting that as much as we can. It’s not our show, but we can help get people to the meetings. That’s key, and as we’re looking at S.B. 1, and the restrictions, we’re providing materials out to our members and other folks to say, ‘Here’s what the legislation means,’” Dr. Antosch said.

The Farm Bureau has also played its part through media campaigns, pamphlets, grant funding, and now, demonstration farms.

“One of the components of the Ohio Farm Bureau’s water quality action plan was to work in establishing a series of demonstration farms in the Blanchard River watershed. We pretty much have sites identified in the process and we’re negotiating contracts on that to establish three to four demonstration farms in the Blanchard. These are farms that would be able to demonstrate new activities and practices and would be open to the public, decision makers and farmers to see what everyone is doing. We did hire a person to manage those,” Dr. Antosch said.

“We traveled out to the Fox River in Wisconsin — there is a demonstration farm there, and we visited with them to learn what they’ve been doing in terms of their demonstration farms. Our goal is to have folks under contract by the beginning of the year and we’re very close to that,” he said.

In addition, the farm bureau has taken those affected closer to ‘ground zero’ — the lake, where they can see firsthand how the blue-green algae have taken over the lake.

“We did take advantage of a great resource at the lake and 200 of our local policy makers and farm bureau members went up to Lake Erie and spent a day on one of the science cruises in learning about the issues right at the beginning of July, right after the big rain event. As I was driving up Highway 4, I could see all the standing water and said, ‘Oh my goodness, what is happening here?’ because we didn’t get that rain in Columbus,” Dr. Antosch said.

He said the OFB will continue its communication events throughout 2016.

“As we’re going and adding events, the state fair, the Farm Science Review, our annual events, we are continually developing educational displays to talk about what’s happening in terms of water quality, in terms of what can you do, what can farmers do to deal with water quality,” Dr. Antosch said.

*Verna Harrison Associates