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Action! Partnerships take center state to improve water quality

Article cover photo
Carrie Vollmar-Sanders (left), and Jessica D'Ambrosio of the Nature Conservatory discuss water quality efforts in Ohio. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association)

By Matt Wilde, ISA Sr. Writer

A plan is in place. Rules are set. Agriculture leaders say it’s show time.

Kirk Merritt, Ohio Soybean Council and Ohio Soybean Association executive director, says the moment has come to find out if collaborative efforts to improve water quality will pay off. He’s betting they will.

“It’s time to let those regulations and the multitude of voluntary practices work,” says Merritt, noting the association would resist additional mandates.

Ohio’s soybean producers are participating in research projects, studies and implementing conservation practices statewide. They’re spending millions in checkoff funds and their own dollars to do it.

“Every farmer should be allowed to do what’s right to maintain the nutrients and productivity of the land,” Merritt adds. “We can achieve the (40 percent phosphorus reduction) goal without sacrificing food production. Farmers understand there’s a water quality problem and they’re working hard to solve it.”

On-farm research

The poster in John Fulton’s office at The Ohio State University (OSU) stood out like a giddy fisherman pulling in a trophy walleye on Lake Erie — OSU On Farm Research: Nutrient Stewardship for Cleaner Water.

Fulton and a host of OSU and U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) researchers and environmentalists are collaboratively working with farmers to curb nutrient runoff.

“Like in Iowa, there’s no silver bullet to improve water quality,” says Fulton, Ph.D., an associate professor specializing in precision agriculture and automation. “What are the practices that help? What makes sense and keeps people in business?”

Libby Dayton, Ph.D., OSU soil scientist, is spearheading research to revise the Ohio Phosphorus Risk Index. In conjunction with USDA’s research arm, Dayton is seeking to identify how much phosphorus is leaving farm fields and why. That information paired with weather data will help farmers select tailored agronomic and conservation practices to help keep phosphorus in the field and out of Lake Erie.

Steve Culman, Ph.D., OSU soil fertility specialist, is leading the charge to update the Tri-State Fertility Guide. It provides farmers in Ohio, Michigan and Indiana recommendations to avoid applying phosphorus and other fertilizer beyond crop needs, which minimizes runoff.

“We’re doing the work … to see how we are doing acre-by-acre to achieve the (40 percent) goal,” Dayton says.

Twenty-nine fields statewide are part of Dayton’s study. Fourteen are in the Western Lake Erie Basin, including two owned by Terry McClure, Ohio Soybean Council chairman of Grover Hill, Ohio.

The council is the largest funder of Dayton’s work, which helped secure a $1 million federal grant.

Monitoring equipment is installed at McClure’s farm to measure rain events, along with surface and subsurface nutrient runoff. Participating farmers provide tillage, rotation, agronomic, conservation and fertilizer records, among other information.

McClure says preliminary data shows his agronomic and conservation practices are working. He plants cover crops, grows soybeans, corn and wheat in a three-year rotation, takes soil grid samples and split applies nutrients (commercial and manure) per soil fertility needs. He also has lots of grass buffer strips.

“We’re living by the 4 Rs for nutrients (right time, right rate, right place, right source),” McClure says. “We are below the agronomic level in this area on phosphate.”

Data indicates Ohio farmers are making progress reducing phosphorus runoff, Dayton says. But more work and research is needed. Cover crops, no-till, nutrient incorporation and water management structures greatly aid in phosphorus retention, she says.

In four years, about 14,000 runoff samples have been collected. In long-term no-till fields, phosphorus loss is far less than a half-pound per acre. EPA leaders contend the state can achieve its 40 percent reduction goal if every farm field can reach this level. 

Fertilizer sales are trending down, Dayton says. About 2 million data points dating back to the 1990s indicates 88 percent of Ohio counties have significant downward trending phosphorus soil test values, she says.

“It shows farmers are taking this situation seriously, paying attention to soil tests and they’re sensitive of fertilizer applications,” Dayton concludes.

Demonstration farms

The Ohio Farm Bureau (OFB) and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service teamed to form the Blanchard River Demonstration Farm Network. It’s part of the Farm Bureau’s Water Quality Action Plan, a comprehensive initiative to help farmers proactively improve and protect water quality while maintaining viable farming practices.

Three farms in the Blanchard River watershed, part of the Western Lake Erie Basin, are voluntarily participating in the first-of-its-kind project. The $1-million-dollar, five-year initiative runs through 2020.

“We’re showcasing innovative conservation practices to improve water quality without having a negative effect on the bottom line,” says Aaron Heilers, project manager. “We’re focusing on what leaves the land in the field, edge-of-field and in the stream.”

The farms will serve as models to share new conservation techniques and practices with farmers, land managers, the media and public.

Duane and Anthony Stateler of McComb, Ohio, jumped at the chance to participate. The father and son grow 600 acres of soybeans, corn and wheat and own a swine wean-to-finish operation, which includes three 2,400-head buildings.

As avid conservationists, the Statelers say they want to do their part to improve water in the Buckeye State.

“We’re stewards of the land. That’s what we claim,” Anthony Stateler says. “If we’re not doing everything we can, there’s an issue.”

The elder Stateler remembers the polluted Cuyahoga River catching fire decades ago. He says farmers stepped up to mitigate water pollution then and they need to do it again to clean up Lake Erie.

“We feel what we’re doing is good,” he says. “I’m not saying we’re doing things perfect, but I hope to find out and do it better.”

The Stateler’s project includes about 250 acres. They’re focusing on managing nutrients, variable rate application, cover crops, alternative cropping rotations, drainage water management and intensive soil testing. The farmers will also test a new tile water treatment system called a phosphorus removal bed. Water from tile lines is diverted into an edge-of-field structure filled with material such steel slag or byproducts of drinking water residuals like alum to absorb phosphorus.

“We’re getting the scientific data on practices. That way farmers know if they’re going to spend money on something it will make a difference,” Heilers says.

The Nature Conservancy is working with the OFB on the demonstration farms, just one of several efforts the conservation group is taking part in to help farmers voluntarily improve water quality.

One practice being studied is the two-stage ditch. Basically, it’s an ag drainage ditch with a secondary level or bench several feet wide planted with vegetation to slow down and filter water.

Jessica D’Ambrosio, director of the conservancy’s Western Lake Erie Basin Agriculture Project, describes the practice as a ditch-in-a-ditch. Studies from Purdue and Notre Dame universities show nitrate reductions of 5-25 percent. Phosphorus removal is still being determined.

“People all over the country are interested in this idea. It’s ideal for flat, drained landscapes and Iowa has a lot of that,” D’Ambrosio says. “It’s very promising.”

Carrie Vollmer-Sanders, nutrient strategy manager for The Nature Conservancy, says she continually hears within the environmental community and from others that voluntary efforts don’t work and regulation is the only way to solve problems.

She disagrees. Farmers throughout Ohio and the Midwest will go above and beyond to improve water quality, test conservation practices and install them when the data shows they work.

“If you think about regulation, it’s setting a benchmark that people need to meet,” Vollmer-Sanders says. “If you do a voluntary program that’s embraced, people often do more than the minimum.”

Put the Statelers in that camp. The family embraces conservation work. They’ve installed 17 drainage water management control structures.

“We feel the biggest bang for the buck in nutrient management is water control,” says Kevin King, USDA Agricultural Research Service research leader. “If we can control the water, we think we can control the issue.”

Anthony says there’s too much at stake not to improve water quality and soil health.

“It’s really about farm preservation,” Anthony, a fifth-generation farmer, says. “I plan on being here a long time with the kids — the sixth generation.”

For permission to republish articles or to request high-res photos contact Aaron Putze at

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