By CELESTE BAUMGARTNER
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Water quality is a complicated topic that the Ohio Agriculture Conservation Initiative (OACI) was recently formed to examine. Its goal is to assess farm practices in the state, promote continuous improvement, increase adoption of best management practices, and create a voluntary certification program.
“The water quality challenges continued to mount,” said Scott Higgins, CEO, Ohio Dairy Producers Assoc. and co-chair of the OACI. “The accusations and the concerns expressed by many of the environmental community were frustrating. It wasn’t until the state of Ohio tried to declare several of the watersheds in the state as distressed that even the environmental community and the Ohio Environmental Council executive director reached out to us and said, ‘This isn’t the answer, and we understand the challenges you’re facing.’”
That began a dialogue. All the groups wanted to improve Ohio’s waterways, and all agreed that regulation was not a solution. They also knew that agriculture is vital to society.
Next, those ag and environmental groups reached out to researchers in the universities that are providing waterway data and assessment. They agreed on a direction using science, best management practices, and scientific tools that are feasible for farmers.
OACI will assess the data and set a baseline of what practices work, Higgins said. He thinks farmers will be willing to use those practices once they see the benefits and recognize they are affordable and feasible. The consuming public will then give them credit for doing those practices.
”It is very complex to change or improve water quality because there are so many contributions besides agriculture,” he explained. “We’re saying to ourselves as a group, agriculture will do our part. We also expect all the others to do their part; every other contributor needs to be doing its part too.”
OACI understands this has been a challenging year for farmers, especially in the Western Lake Erie Basin. There are a dramatically high number of acres of unplanted fields because of excessive rainfall. The past 12 months have been the wettest in 124 years of recorded rainfall history, resulting in high water levels in Lake Erie and heavier-than-normal flows down the Maumee River.
Rick Graham, Lake Erie Foundation board member and Izaak Walton League of America – National Great Lakes Committee Chair, concurred with Higgins’ and OACI’s viewpoint.
“The Lake Erie Foundation thinks that the vast majority of farmers are doing their absolute best to try to reduce their nutrient runoff,” he said. “They are using their best management practices, and the results are good, but when we have rainfalls like we did this past spring, they overwhelm everything.
“One thing we are pushing is that we need to know what the results are of some of these practices, and we think this can be done. Many farmers are appalled at how the lake looks. Many are fisherman; they love the lake. We need to establish the best practices that work on different soils and topography.”
OACI’s core component of assessment, verification, and certification, along with robust research, will be a critical tool for enhancing understanding of impacts on the state’s waterways and identifying solutions to address algal blooms and nutrient reduction to improve Ohio’s waterways, Higgins said.