By Dusty Sonnenberg, CCA, Ohio Field Leader
Just as the 4Rs of Nutrient Management has become a common phrase in Ohio agriculture, the Ohio Agriculture Conservation Initiative (OAIC) is likely to become just as familiar in Ohio’s agriculture community in 2020.
“This is an innovative, collaborative effort of the agricultural, conservation, environmental, and research communities in Ohio to improve water quality. They plan to do this by establishing a baseline understanding of current conservation and nutrient management efforts and building a new certification program for farmers,” said Scott Shearer, Chair of the Department of Agricultural, Environmental, and Biological Engineering at The Ohio State University. “There are a lot of farmers out there doing the right things, we just have not had a good way to measure or quantify those or to be able to communicate that to the general public. When H2Ohio came along, it put more emphasis on water quality and best management practices. If we don’t know where we are at, how will we know if we move the needle?”
In a presentation Shearer gave during the 2019 Ohio Grain Farmers Symposium, emphasis was placed on the fact that this new initiative was one of the first times an endeavor of this nature has taken place, with both the agricultural
community and environmental groups coming together with a common vision. That vision articulates how the various stakeholder groups should proceed in moving forward efforts to improve water quality in Ohio. Organizations such as The Nature Conservancy, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Ohio Environmental Council came together with all of Ohio’s major agricultural commodity and livestock organizations as well as the Ohio Farm Bureau, Ohio Agribusiness Association, and The Fertilizer Institute. All became members of the OACI.
The mission is simple. OACI plans to bring together the diverse stakeholder groups to improve Ohio’s water quality through measurement, education and certification of Ohio’s farmers in the successful implementation of on-farm conservation and nutrient management practices. In doing this, they hope to achieve meaningful improvement of water quality in Ohio, assure the viability of Ohio agriculture and build widespread participation of farmers.
“The OACI conducted work prior to the H2Ohio being announced by Governor DeWine. The 10 best management practices identified by H2Ohio are very similar to work that had been done identifying best management practices by the OACI, prior to H2Ohio being formalized. This is ironic as the two groups (OACI and H2Ohio) went at the issue looking at things from slightly different places, but came to relatively the same final conclusions,” Shearer said. “The basis for OACI’s work is to first identify what best management practices are currently being used by farmers and then work to move farmers to implement more practices that make sense. OACI intends for this to all be achieved through the voluntary efforts of farmers.”
The OACI objectives will be organized by and operate through the formation of the Ohio Agriculture Conservation Council (OACC). The Ohio Agriculture Conservation Council will be a “not for profit” organization that has a board of directors which governs how the organization will move forward with programs. The OACC will be comprised of 11 volunteer directors. Those directors will consist of five farmers, as well as representatives from three agricultural organizations, and three non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The OACC directors will look to an advisory committee for assistance. The advisory committee will consist of individuals from universities, research institutions, and government agencies. Data management and aggregate output will be the responsibility of The Ohio State University as well as field auditors. Overall management and operations agreements will be the responsibility of the Ohio Federation of Soil and Water Conservation Districts.
The member organizations belonging to OACI will advocate for the OACC and its programs. They will meet as needed to review programming. They will also select the OACC directors and offer recommendations. The OACC volunteer directors will be elected to staggered three-year terms.
“There are really two phases to the OACI and OACC program. First there is the assessment phase, and once that is complete, there will be the certification phase,” Shearer said. “The assessment phase is just to get a better handle on what practices farmers are actually using.”
The plan is to assess and confidentially take inventory of farm practices to establish a baseline of current conservation and nutrient management practice adoption. The second phase will establish a certification program that recognizes those farms that demonstrate a commitment to continuous improvement in the implementation of conservation and nutrient management practices. This certification will identify and provide resources that encourage increased adoption of science-based practices that contribute toward healthier waterways.
“In the assessment, OACI will survey fields, (not the farmer, although farmers will voluntarily be a part of the process),” Shearer said. “All data will be aggregated data that will be held by The Ohio State University. To ensure confidentiality, OSU will hold this aggregated data and it will be protected under a number of different avenues.”
The initial survey will be conducted in the Lower Maumee Watershed. OACI will identify 500 fields in this area to be surveyed. The survey will be conducted by trained professionals. All data will be collected via a mobile tablet app that will transfer the data to the “cloud” at OSU for aggregation and statistical analysis. Through this process, all data will be kept confidential.
Components of the assessment include practices and consideration, as well as structural improvements. Practices surveyed will include: land tenure arrangements; crop rotation; soil test frequency and intensity; what source for nutrient recommendations are being used; surface and subsurface placement of phosphorus (P) and nitrogen (N); fixed versus variable rate placement of P and N; manure testing and application rates; evidence of erosion; tillage practices; and the use of cover crops. Structural improvements surveyed will include: blind inlets; surface inlet buffers; grassed waterways; alternative ditch designs, such as 2-stage ditches; controlled drainage structures; and phosphorus filters and bioreactors.
“The certification will make technical and financial resources available to farmers. The OACI certification does not replace the ag retailers 4R certification program which is already in place. OACI certification is a process designed to recognize farmers, on a whole farm level, who have adopted a high level of conservation practices,” said Jessica D’Ambrosio, Western Lake Erie Basin Project Director for the Nature Conservancy. “The outcome desired is to provide technical resources and create a road map for each farmer for the adoption of practices by increasing awareness, education and funding for farmers who want to begin, or work toward higher levels implementing conservation practices.”
The certification will be piloted in the Western Lake Erie Basin in early 2020. Farmers will be able to self-report information via a mobile app. There will be an independent audit of those certification requests. The certification program is planned to be administered by the Ohio Federation of Soil and Water Conservation Districts.
“Farmers participating in the certification program will be evaluated in the areas of: soil testing, nutrient application and placement, in-field management, and structural practices,” D’Ambrosio said. “The participants will record the number of acres involved in each category, and be able to designate if those acres are rented versus owned as each will be weighted differently.”
Farmers will be given a score for each category as well as an aggregated overall score that will determine their certification level. The farmer’s level of certification will determine access to different financial incentives. Those not meeting the minimum criteria for certification will be given the tools to create an action plan in order to become certified.
For more information visit www.OhioACI.org.