When half a million people were told “don’t drink the water,” reaction was instinctive and universal: “Somebody needs to do something.” Eight months later, some have done some great things. Others, not so much.
Full disclosure: I’m writing this column partially out of pride and partially out of frustration. Pride that no one has stepped up like farmers have. Frustration that no one has been stepped on like farmers.
Among the things I’m proud of are the more than 6,200 farmers, who manage nearly a million acres, who’ve completed continuing education in fertilizer application and been certified by the state of Ohio. Ag retailers who do similar work on another 305,000 acres have received third party certification. Farmers helped pass a new state law that will reduce nutrient runoff from their fields. Ohio Farm Bureau’s Water Quality Action Plan committed $1 million to help farmers improve their knowledge and develop techniques that make sense agronomically and environmentally. Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences committed an additional $1 million for its Field to Faucet initiative to identify challenges and practical solutions across the full water spectrum. The farm community also successfully supported the effort to bring nearly $12 million in federal farm bill money to protect the watershed that feeds Lake Erie. We also led the Healthy Water Ohio coalition of conservation, business, academic and other interests that soon will issue a long-term water strategy report.
Despite these meaningful actions, the reaction, in some circles, has been: “It’s not enough.” To some extent, they’re correct. Farmers don’t believe the battle has been won. But farmers are curious, as am I, why the critics aren’t equally as demanding of others who own a piece of this problem.
There are more than 1,200 locations in Ohio where’s it’s legal for a municipality to occasionally dump human waste directly into our water. As many as 30 percent of home septic systems are not preventing waste from entering the water supply. Forty-five percent of Western Lake Erie’s nutrient load is being washed down from Michigan’s Detroit River with additional amounts from Indiana and Canada. We dredge up algae-causing nutrients and dump them right back into the lake. Urban runoff, domestic and invasive species and extreme weather events affect water quality.
These challenges rarely, if ever, get mentioned by the editorial boards and agitators who scornfully and simplistically demand that farmers fix our water problems. It’s a harmful omission. If we’re led to believe that only farmers have to act, the rest of us might conclude we’re off the hook. We’re not.
Our jobs, our quality of life, our continued abundance of food all depend on the choices we make. What water problems are our highest priority? What are the best solutions? How do we fix them without compromising these other priorities? And, maybe the hardest question of all, how do we pay for it all?
As algae season approaches, and it will, and you’re told water quality is a farm problem, please think twice. Farmers aren’t saying “We can’t fix this.” They’re saying “We can’t fix this alone.”
John C. (Jack) Fisher
Ohio Farm Bureau executive vice president