By CELESTE BAUMGARTNER
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Farmers want to do their part to solve the problem of harmful algal blooms and they would rather it not be mandated, said Bob George, district administrator with the Henry County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD).
Education and programs such as the Healthy Lake Erie Fund have been beneficial; the intent of the $3 million fund, implemented in 2012, was to improve water quality in the Western Lake Erie Basin. It focused on conservation practices in Henry, Wood, Putnam, Defiance and Hancock counties, which drain into the Maumee River and then Lake Erie, said Mark Bruce, Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR), office of communications.
“There were five best management practices farmers could use,” George said. “Three involved the use and the promotion of variable rate technology (VRT) for fertilizer, concentrating on the phosphorous that was in the field and then applying phosphorous to a recommendation called the tri-state fertilizer recommendation (common fertilizer recommendations for major crops developed by Ohio State, Michigan State and Purdue universities).”
One of those practices was using VRT with cover crops planted on the fields, George said. Farmers seeded oats after wheat, or rye after the soybeans or corn were harvested. Another practice was using VRT without cover crops, putting fertilizer on according to the VRT rate.
“They were doing soil samples in two- to six-acre grids,” George said. “Previously farmers might, on a 40-acre field, do two or three samples on the entire field or sometimes just one. We were looking at a much more precise soil sample. Then we were putting the fertilizer on according to what was there and what was needed instead of just a blanket application.”
Farmers who did not use cover crops had to incorporate the fertilizer into the soil within 48 hours to keep the fertilizer from running off or going into a suspended solution in case of heavy rain, George said.
Another practice involved placing a catch basin at the end of the tile main, George said. While research is still needed, scientists are beginning to think much of the soluble phosphorous causing the algal blooms is coming out of the underground drain tiles so common in the flat, northwestern part of the state. Many fields are tiled with 30-50 feet spacing.
“They wanted to be proactive,” George said. “They don’t have a lot of research on this. They wanted to shut the water off from going in the ditches, as much as possible, from after harvest until March 1, so they installed a catch basin or a box at the end of the tile main.”
The boxes must be shut off during that period for three years, he said. That benefits the water quality but another possible benefit is after crops are planted, if a dry spell comes, farmers can shut the boxes and hold back some of the water – which may increase yield.
“These practices are very good at saving farmers money,” George said. “We’ve done close to 10,000 acres of VRT and we’ve seen that on about 35 percent of those acres, the phosphorous in the fields was above the maximum rate that was supposed to be there. It’s been a really good program. They’re seeing the benefits.
“We also had a couple of local chemical dealers really buy into the program and sell it to their customers. Instead of selling product, they’re selling services. They’re selling more precise, more technical soil samples, things like that.”
Waiting in line for funds
Henry County farmers who missed out on funding in 2012 were waiting in line in 2013. The county received $300,000 and the funds were gone in under two days, George said.
Hancock County received funds from the program in 2012 but not in 2013, said Jean Derr, the county SWCD program administrator. Farmers there did cover crops, VRT and grid sampling.
“We had seven farmers, that’s all the farther the money would go,” Derr said. “They were very pleased. Since then we’ve had double that come in and want to be able to get funding. It’s a terrific program and anything that any of the farmers and agencies can do to assist in cleaning up the lakes and stopping the erosion is great.”
The Healthy Lake Erie Fund is part of the Ohio Clean Lakes Initiative, which is a collaboration between the departments of Natural Resources (DNR), Agriculture and the Environmen-tal Protection Agency (EPA), Bruce said. DNR administers the program.
“I have to give a lot of the credit to the local soil and water conservation districts,” Bruce said. “We work closely with them, they’re the ‘feet on the ground.’ They’re the ones that are identifying the farmers, working with the farmers, to get these practices built and implemented.”
While it is too early to tell if the practices are working, the agencies are confident they will be effective because they have worked in other states with water quality issues. “Farmers all across the country have realized that these practices work and it doesn’t affect production,” Bruce said. “You can still have a very profitable farming operation, so it is a win-win for everyone.”
The money for the Healthy Lake Erie Fund was secured by state Sen. Randy Gardner (R-District 2). By the end of fiscal year 2013, DNR will have spent almost $2.45 million of the $3 million appropriated.
The department requested in House Bill 59 that the remaining $550,000 be reappropriated, focusing specifically on monitoring loads in the Maumee watershed to track the effectiveness of the conservation practices.