Ohio Farm Bureau sponsored a recent conference examining ways farmers could help improve water quality in Lake Erie.

Farm community addresses water quality issues in Grand Lake St. Marys, Lake Erie

Buckeye Farm News

Ohio’s farm community has been coming together to discuss and look for solutions to water quality and nutrient management challenges in the state. Of particular concern is Grand Lake St. Marys and the western Lake Erie Basin.

In late August, farmers started to develop a new program called On-Farm Network to address some of the problems at Grand Lake St. Marys in western Ohio. The program is modeled after one started by the Iowa Soybean Association in 2000 and is now found in many other states. The On-Farm Network has farmers use precision agriculture tools and technologies to conduct fertility and crop production research on their farms. They then use their own data and that from other area farmers to evaluate the effectiveness of different nutrient management practices.

“Farmers who decide to enter the program will do nutrient testing to make sure they are using the right amount of fertilizer. We had a great signup at the first meeting and it definitely will grow,” said Jill Smith, Ohio Farm Bureau organization director.

The program started in late August and is funded by a grant obtained with the help of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and Ag Solutions, a local farmer group that is looking for ways to decrease the amount of manure and commercial fertilizer going into Grand Lake St. Marys. The runoff is contributing to the lake’s toxic algae blooms, which are a threat to human and animal health and the area’s thriving tourist economy.

The Grand Lake St. Marys watershed was designated a “watershed in distress,” meaning farmers must develop and follow a nutrient management plan by December 2012. In addition, winter application of manure will be restricted beginning January 2013. Seventy percent of the total acres in the watershed now have comprehensive nutrient management plans, Smith said.

“Everybody has been working together to make a positive difference,” she said.

Also in August was the “Agriculture and Lake Erie” conference, which was sponsored by the Andersons, Ohio Farm Bureau, the Fertilizer Institute, the Nature Conservancy, Defiance Soil and Water Conservation District and other agriculture and conservation groups from Indiana and Michigan. The invitation-only conference had about 100 participants who discussed ways that the farm community could contribute to a healthier Lake Erie. The western Lake Erie Basin and Maumee River have shown higher amounts of dissolved phosphorous from agriculture and sewage runoff over the past 15 years, said Larry Antosch, Ohio Farm Bureau’s senior director of program innovation and environmental policy. The increased loading of phosphorous has resulted in excessive algae growth.

During the Aug. 11 conference, participants discussed possible research gaps, nutrient management improvements and technical and financial resources needed to develop and implement solutions for decreasing the phosphorous and nitrate loading into the western Lake Erie Basin. The conference looked at fertilizer application methods including the Fertilizer Institute’s 4R Nutrient Stewardship Program: right source, right rate, right time and right place. Antosch noted that one of the big challenges identified was the winter time application of fertilizer. He said that due to industry consolidation it appears that a smaller number of agribusinesses are applying fertilizer on a larger number of acres and may lack the equipment, manpower or time to apply it immediately before spring time planting.

“Increased amounts of dissolved phosphorous are showing up in surface waters in Ohio and across the Midwest. We know what’s going on but not why. What we need to do is figure out how we as an industry can come up with a plan to decrease those amounts before it is mandated by the state or federal government,” said Antosch, who helped plan and attended the conference in Perrysburg.

He said the group will continue to meet to develop a strategic plan of action, support research to help identify the specific cause(s) of the problem and see what can be done to address it.

Photo by Galen Harris

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