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Up Front: Farming and water quality
The following will be featured in Ohio Farm Bureau Federation Executive Vice President Jack Fisher's "Up Front" editorial column of the March/April issue of Our Ohio magazine.
E = mc² may have made Einstein famous, but his foul-ups were legendary, too. There are books dedicated to enumerating errors in his math, physics and whatever other disciplines geniuses employ.
But one of history’s greatest scientists seems to have embraced his imperfections, noting that “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” We’ll test Einstein’s wisdom soon enough as Ohioans go about trying something new in the production of food.
We’re forced to rethink how we raise crops because of the mineral phosphorus, a crucial ingredient in farm fertilizer. When washed by rainwater from fields to lakes, phosphorus feeds harmful algae that can ruin swimming, fishing and boating and pose a risk to human health. Clearly this is unacceptable, so we need to adjust the way we farm. The trick will be in figuring out exactly how to adjust, given the fact that some past adjustments got us in the position we’re in today.
In the 1960s, to boost yields, agronomists promoted the “banking” of phosphorus-essentially storing future years’ needs in the field. In the ’70s, because of exploding world demand for food, then Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz famously exhorted farmers to “plant fencerow to fencerow.” In the ’80s, when public concern over erosion became clear, farmers switched to tillage techniques that disturbed the soil less. Each was a great idea, an appropriate response to the science and policies of the day. And each kept us well fed and boosted the economy. But as updated science has discovered, stockpiling nutrients, eliminating grassy areas along the edges of fields and not plowing the ground come with another consequence: phosphorus overload in our lakes.
It would be wrong to blame agriculture alone. Nature itself is at fault in cases where lakes are shallow solar collectorsbedded on nutrient-producing organic material. The phosphorus that escaped from fertilized lawns, golf courses and ball fields, laundry and dish detergents, leaky home septic systems and faulty municipal treatment plants didn't help. More recently, geese and other wildlife, abnormal weather patterns and invasive aquatic species have had harmful effects. Whether it’s Grand Lake St. Marys, Lake Erie or other important water resources, there’s plenty of blame to go around. But finger-pointing won’t help. Action will.
Throughout Ohio, farmers are planting grass and trees near stream banks to filter runoff. They’re getting down in the dirt testing their soils and using satellite positioning to apply fertilizer in the right place at the right time in the right way in the right amounts. They’re following Farm Bureau policy, which expects every farmer to have and follow a nutrient management plan. They’re engaging with Ohio’s EPA, Agriculture and Natural Resources departments, local regulators, the governor’s office and the General Assembly who all are working on practical solutions. They’re talking to their fellow farmers about behaving responsibly. And importantly, they’re listening to the homeowners, small businesses and communities who, like farmers, need this problem fixed.
We’ll figure out the agronomy, biology, chemistry, geology and hydrology. Hopefully the psychology, too, because managing phosphorus will require us to manage our expectations; not everyone is going to get everything they want exactly when they want it. Hardest will be the policy, which has respond to what we know today and adapt to what we will know tomorrow.
As Albert once observed, “A clever person solves a problem. A wise person avoids it.” My theory is that we’ll do relatively well at both.