A water quality status report

By Dusty Sonnenberg, CCA, Ohio Field Leader: a project of the Ohio Soybean Council and soybean checkoff

When farmers set their mind to something, they are going to do it right. That has been the case as the agriculture industry pulled together to tackle water quality issues across the state. In 2014, the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation announced that their members would be investing $1 million dollars to develop a comprehensive water quality action plan to address growing concerns of water quality issues in the Western Lake Erie Basin and the Ohio River. Since that time, individual farmers and agricultural businesses, agricultural commodity groups and livestock organizations, and environmental groups have joined forces to bring the plan to reality.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic stealing the headlines, the H2Ohio program was making news across the state.

“The H2Ohio program is money that Ohio Governor Mike DeWine set aside for the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) the Ohio Department of Natural Resource (ODNR) and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to help with water quality projects that span the state and span those departments,” said Jordan Hoewischer, Director of Water Quality and Research for the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation. “The money designated to the ODA has been focused on implementing conservation practices in the Western Lake Erie Basin by farmers in that region.”

Farmers take pride in being stewards of their land and resources.

“We have been asking for money (from H2Ohio) to help farmers who are willing and able to implement conservation practices, but in these economically challenging times, need the assistance to be able to do so in a cost-effective way,” Hoewischer said.

With the H2Ohio program announcement by Governor DeWine last fall, 10 of the most effective and cost efficient agricultural management practices have been identified to reduce phosphorus runoff. Over 2,000 farmers have submitted applications to participate in the H2Ohio program to manage nutrients by these practices. Collectively those applications represent 1.1 million acres of cropland in 14 counties in the Maumee River Watershed by farmers eligible to participate.

The Ohio Agriculture Conservation Initiative (OACI) was created in concert with H2Ohio. OACI is a diverse group of 18 stakeholders representing agriculture, conservation, environmental groups and research institutions.

“For the last year and a half, the OACI has been meeting to come up with comprehensive and cohesive ways to continue to push farmers along with their conservation efforts,” Hoewischer said. “Coupled with the H2Ohio program efforts, OACI has been able to be the private organization out in front with two efforts. The first is a farm/field evaluation survey in the lower Maumee River Watershed to establish a baseline with where conservation efforts are. This will allow us to measure improvement. The second is a farmer certification program that evaluates where farmers are at with their conservation efforts and helps develop a plan of continuous improvement. A new app and online portal are scheduled to be released later in July so farmers can self-certify. Both of these efforts feed into H2Ohio to serve as gatekeepers for the funds.”

Since it’s launch in 2015, the Blanchard River Demonstration Farms Network has provided an opportunity to both research and exhibit conservation practices in action.

“The Blanchard River Demonstration Farms are in the Western Lake Erie Basin,” Hoewischer said. “They demonstrate conservation practices and showcase what a lot of farmers are doing in the area. We bring private and public organizations, legislators, students and teachers from around Ohio, to show them what a real farm looks like, and what farmers are trying out with their own finances to improve nutrient management and water quality. The farmers are trying to demonstrate and explain to visitors how they are doing their part by working to keep water from moving off of their fields carrying the nutrients with it down the pike to the next body of water.”

The conservation practices demonstrated on these farms include: cover crops, drainage water management structures, manure and fertilizer placement, phosphorus removal beds, and many others. These were categorized for farmers so they could understand what conservation goal was being met including the 4Rs (Right Source, Right Rate, Right Time, Right Place), reducing soil erosion and developing a water management plan.

In addition, the Ohio Farm Bureau started a County Water Quality Grant program 5 years ago.

“We wanted to spread some money around other parts of the state,” Hoewischer said.

The Ohio Farm Bureau and partnering organizations have invested in county Farm Bureau led water quality projects. Farm Bureau has awarded nearly $450,000 that has been leveraged to gain nearly $700,000 in matching funds from outside groups such as businesses, universities, Soil and Water Conservation Districts, federal agencies, and local park districts. A nutrient efficiency forecasting tool was created as well.

“A water quality smart phone app was updated. Educational tours and workshops were conducted. Even bus trips to the Blanchard River Demonstration Farms Network were hosted,” Hoewischer said.

These are just some of the measures Ohio farm organizations have made to the financial and physical commitment for improving water quality issues across the state.

“Ohio farmers for a long time have been doing a lot of good things for conservation,” Hoewischer said. “H2Ohio and OACI can support the leaders implementing practices, encourage those beginning, and help bring up the middle to keep up with Ohio’s changing landscape.”

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