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OABA’s Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program celebrating and implementing the 4R philosophy

Everyone wants clean water.

Yet, in the complex realities of food production, land management and nutrient stewardship, balancing society’s other needs with the supply of clean water is not always a simple task. While everyone wants clean water, not everyone is willing to invest their time, money and other resources into doing what is necessary to make that a reality.

Using the right fertilizer source at the right rate, the right time and in the right place is a simple concept, but the actual implementation of the 4Rs is a challenging task that requires a broad, unified approach including farmers and the agribusinesses that work with them. Ohio took legislative steps to address the water quality challenges in the western basin of Lake Erie, but Ohio’s agribusinesses wanted to take their water quality efforts a step further.

“We started having conversations with The Nature Conservancy about what else could be done outside of government mandates. That is how the idea of certification of agricultural retailers and nutrient service providers got started,” said Chris Henney, president and CEO of the Ohio AgriBusiness Association (OABA). “We worked with Carrie Vollmer-Sanders at The Nature Conservancy and many other early partners to develop the concept of a certification program for ag retailers. The concept is based around the idea that there are some key people farmers really trust — their banker, their grain merchandiser, and their ag retailer. These are folks who really help them make critical farm decisions. If we can hold up retailers who are doing things right and help them do more things right, we can impact a lot more acres a lot faster.”

Ultimately this concept led to the development of the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program and the formation of a Nutrient Stewardship Council. The new program, overseen by OABA, was launched in March of 2014. The Program provides a set of guidelines for doing what is necessary to implement the 4Rs and a platform to highlight the agricultural businesses doing it.

“The long term viability of our industry requires our association and member companies to be leaders in the field implementation of the 4Rs. As the program developed, it became quickly apparent that OABA needed to take a leadership position in administrating a certification program built upon implementing the principles of the 4Rs in real world applications on farms,” Henney said. “We ensured ag retailers were involved in the process to develop criteria for the certification process and also identified key skills necessary for third party auditors to assess the level of compliance with the criteria of the program. We have known for years that our member companies are doing many things right, but we wanted to document that so it was recognized they really are doing the right things. We aren’t just saying it, we are proving it with this program.”

Through the Certification program, OABA has partnered with a variety of agriculture and environmental groups, researchers and experts to coordinate the education, training, implementation and third party auditing for the application of nutrients using the 4R principles of nutrient stewardship. Key partners in the effort include The Nature Conservancy and The Fertilizer Institute.

“Now we have 34 retailers who are certified and we are having an impact with 5,500 farmers and 2.7 million acres,” Henney said. “I am so proud of our members and the agricultural industry and how they have embraced this.”

The certification process is both rigorous and stringent.

“When the program started there were 43 requirements from the Nutrient Stewardship Council advisory committee and they paired that down to 41 requirements. The committee meets on a bi-annual basis to review the requirements to make sure those requirements are still current,” said Andrew Allman, the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program executive director. “There are 26 requirements in year one, an additional nine requirements in year two and the six remaining requirements in year three. We are now coming to the full-circle in this first audit cycle to see how this is really working for those participating nutrient service providers in the program.

“They go though a rigorous audit of those 41 requirements over a three-year period and once you hit year four you are expected to be doing all of those 41 things. Then it is an annual audit. The first audit cycle is not 100% pass-fail. If there are certain areas the participants need to improve upon, they can take a look at where they had non-compliance issues and submit a corrective action plan to the auditor of exactly how they will handle the issues. They need to make the improvements and will be heavily scrutinized in those areas in the following audit. This is really designed to help them be better stewards of the land.”

There are three sections to the Program: initial training and ongoing education; monitoring of 4R implementation; and nutrient recommendations and application. Some of the requirements for the agribusinesses in the Program include:

• Providing nutrient recommendations that are consistent with the state’s land-grant university’s nutrient recommendations.

• A certified professional review of the nutrient recommendations made for the grower customers.

• A staff with an understanding of the 4Rs of nutrient stewardship.

• Soil tests used to make nutrient recommendations are less than four years old.

• Nutrient application equipment that is calibrated annually.

• The timing of fertilizer application avoids spreading on frozen or snow-covered fields.

• Nutrients are not broadcast applied prior to a predicted heavy rainfall.

• All sources of fertilizer are accounted for in the nutrient recommendations.

• Phosphorus is applied below the soil surface whenever possible.

• Nutrient application setbacks are followed in sensitive areas.

Allman has been excited to see how the certified agribusinesses have responded to their inclusion in the program.

“Senate Bill 1 comes into play with this in terms of the application of nutrients on frozen ground and watching the weather. The ag retailers are really being conscious of when they should be applying. Of course in northwest Ohio in the Western Lake Erie Basin, that is law now. But we do have retailers with customers outside the Lake Erie Watershed. They are watching the weather patterns more closely and documenting the weather because when they go through the audit, those things will be looked at as a part of the 41 requirements,” Allman said. “Retailers are taking a look at their application equipment to make it better in terms of the 4Rs. There are certified facilities retrofitting their equipment to see how they can keep those nutrients in the fields and out of the waterways.”

Education is another important part of the certification requirements.

“In terms of education, most of these businesses have grower field days or grower education materials that they will send out to their clients. To be a part of the program, there are a few requirements based around the education of their customers. They are really starting to implement the 4Rs in their grower field days and the information they are passing along is trying to stress what the 4Rs are doing for their businesses and also what they can do for the farmer clients they are working with,” Allman said. “Education is a pillar for the program. It was something the retailers were doing before, but not as much as they are now. They are really stressing to their employees the importance of the 4Rs internally as well so they can pass it along to their customers. They are encouraging their staff members to attend seminars and events where they can learn about water quality and being good stewards.”

Ultimately, the Certification Program serves to both highlight agribusinesses already doing the right things for water quality and encourage them to do more.

“One of the surprises for the industry with this was a change in mindset. They came together to make change happen and share practices and technology to make the industry better as a whole,” Allman said. “The majority of retailers have been doing the right things for quite a few years, but they have not done a good job of telling their story and putting this out from a PR standpoint. There is knowledge sharing and the understanding that we need to think a little bit differently and do some things a little differently, but we also need to get this information out about the positive things that have been happening.”

The early success of Ohio’s 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program is getting attention around the country.

“When we started, we didn’t have a roadmap to go by. They were hoping to get 15 retailers signed up and showing interest in the first six months. They had more than double that and within a year’s time there were 50 service providers expressing interest and at least 15 that were certified,” Allman said. “There was a lot of struggle to launch the program. They had tough conversations that needed to be had. They knew that this program was not a silver bullet, but it is a component of doing our part and addressing these issues. Now we are looking at expansion into other states and regions with this program as a model.”

For more, visit 4rcertified.org

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