Ask Terry McClure about the lay of his farmland and he’ll give you a history. Turns out his Paulding County farm used to be part of the Great Black Swamp, which for hundreds of years, stretched from present day Fort Wayne, Ind. to the shores of Lake Erie. Thick with trees and chest-deep water at spots, the swamp was hard to traverse. Settlers bypassed it until they were drawn in by the lure of its huge and profitable trees.
“This used to be big tree country. They used to float them out through canals. If you dig down into the ditches today, you can still find some of those logs. When they ran out of trees, they started draining the land for agriculture,” said McClure, a fifth-generation grain and hog farmer from Grover Hill.
Underneath all that water was rich soil, perfect for growing crops, and agriculture flourished. More of the swamp was drained until there was little more than a mud puddle as McClure describes it. Left was impervious clay, and with the trees gone and little to break up the soil, the land became prone to flooding as it remains today.
KNOWING THE LAND
The water that pools on the land has been a concern for McClure and northwestern Ohio landowners and cities for decades. A young McClure once spent a summer hanging out with workers as they used massive pieces of equipment to put in dredges to alleviate severe flooding. It’s hard to find a county road that doesn’t have a ditch running along the side.
Knowing the geological history of the land and the science of the soil is important to McClure, a former Ohio Farm Bureau president and currently on the Nationwide Insurance board. His goal has always been to be a good steward of the land not only because it provides for his livelihood but because it’s the right thing to do. Over the years he has used different types of conservation measures to help protect the land, including switching to no-till, putting in cover crops such as oats to put nutrients back in the soil and applying manure to the ground when it is least likely to run off the farm and into waterways.
Now he has taken those measures a step further by letting scientists onto his land where they are collecting rainwater runoff as part of a three-year study to determine how much phosphorus it contains. Phosphorus runoff is a major concern in the area and throughout Ohio because it often ends up in Ohio lakes and waterways where it helps fuel the growth of blue-green algae, which can turn into toxic blooms. These harmful algal blooms are a threat to wildlife as well as the state’s multi-billion dollar tourism industry.
Over the years McClure has changed how and when he applies phosphorus and concentrates on the “4Rs”: using the right fertilizer source at the right rate, at the right time and at the right place. He said soil tests show he is actually under-applying the nutrient in some areas. His hope is that changes to some of his conservation and application practices will have a big impact.
“Reducing my phosphorus runoff by just a bit might not seem like much until you multiply that by more than 4 million acres in our watershed. A small change just might work,” he said.
Besides allowing research to be done on his land, McClure has become a board member of The Nature Conservancy in Ohio, a group that works to protect ecologically important lands and waters in a non-confrontational, pragmatic way.
“We recently welcomed Terry McClure to our board so he could give us a better sense and we could learn from him about some of the considerations that farm families go through,” said Josh Knights, executive director of The Nature Conservancy in Ohio, who visited McClure’s farm to see the water testing being done there. “What we really need to figure out is why is phosphorus leaving the farm field. Farmers don’t want it to leave; they want it on the farm in the field doing the job it’s meant to do.”
McClure knows all about figuring things out, whether it’s in a board meeting or out in the fields that he has toiled in since high school. He works side by side with his father and son on the farm with the hopes that a grandchild will some day become the seventh generation to farm. Based on his 4-year-old grandson’s love of eating dinner in the combine and playfully “farming the church pews,” McClure is confident that will happen.
“We want to take care of the land the best we can because we want to make sure it continues to be viable for the next generation,” he said.
Researchers examining farm runoff to reduce phosphorus in lakes
Ohio State University and U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers are collecting rainwater runoff at Terry McClure’s farm and 33 other farm sites throughout Ohio to measure how much phosphorus it contains. The goal is to come up with a plan to reduce phosphorus runoff from farms. Ohio Farm Bureau Federation and other agricultural groups have invested more than $1 million for the on-farm, edge-of-field testing and USDA matched that amount, for a total of $2 million.
Amy Beth Graves is a freelance writer from Upper Arlington.