SIDNEY —Shelby County farmer Aaron Heilers says Ohio’s farmers are doing everything they can to reduce the flow of phosphorus from their fields into streams, ponds and lakes. He calls a University of Michigan report released Tuesday “disappointing” saying that these efforts are not enough to stop fertilizer runoff into the soil that is contaminating the regions waterways and lakes.
The Associated Press Tuesday released findings of the Michigan report that also suggests cutting phosphorus runoff into Lake Erie enough to prevent harmful algae outbreaks would require sweeping changes on the region’s farms that may include converting thousands of acres of cropland into grassland, scientists said in the report.
The study released by the University of Michigan Water Center found current efforts to keep phosphorus, which is found in livestock manure and artificial fertilizers, on fields instead of flowing into the lake are falling drastically short of results needed to achieve a 40 percent drop in runoff — a target set by the U.S. and Canada in February.
When asked about the report, Heilers said it appears to follow the pattern of blaming the farmer. “It does feel like again that agriculture is bearing the brunt of the responsibility. My concern is what are other contributors being made or forced to do?” he asked.
“From what I read, this report is based off modeling, and that’s a bit scary in my mind for us to be talking about setting policy and making recommendations about removing farmland from production just based off of models.”
Heilers, of Botkins, is closer to this issue than most. Last year he was named project manager for the Blanchard River Demonstration Farms. This is a five-year, $1 million project to look at water sheds and farming practices on demonstration farms in northern Ohio, where nutrient water runoff into the rivers and Lake Erie have been an issue.
The project is a collaboration between the Ohio Farm Bureau, Ohio State University and the Natural Resource Conservation Service. “The Blanchard Water Shed was identified as one of the hot spots, which led to the project,” Heilers said during a seminar on water quality issues last month in Columbus. His project, which he hopes to be under way this year, will look at what farm practices will have the most impact on reducing fertilizer flow into streams and rivers.
Some of the 30,000 acres of farmland in the Maumee River Watershed suggested in the report to retire to pastureland would likely be in Heilers’ demonstration farm area — Hancock and Hardin Counties, with a small part in Allen and Putnam Counties.
“I wasn’t expecting to see that recommendation, I guess. That solution has been talked about in meeting I’ve attended — retiring thousands of acres of farmland to pasture — but when you actually see it in print, it is kind of alarming,” he said.
“The problem I see with retiring this land from production, if there is a legacy phosphorus issue, you will still be having these issues for years to come. It is in the ground and it will be coming out somehow. Just not farming at all is not a solution in my opinion,” he said.
Excessive levels of fertilizers are the leading cause of increasingly massive algal blooms, which in 2014 left more than 400,000 people in Toledo, and southeastern Michigan unable to consume tap water for two days because the bacterial algae produce a toxin. Another bloom last year was the largest on record. Phosphorus also causes a “dead zone” in Lake Erie’s central basin with so little oxygen that fish cannot survive.
Using computer modeling, a team of scientists tested different combinations of best-management practices that could bring the algae under control. Some are already in use, such as planting vegetation buffers between cultivated fields and waterways. Others include applying phosphorus-based fertilizers beneath the land’s surface instead of on top, where it’s more likely to wash away, and planting cover crops such as winter wheat, according to the report.
Ohio and Michigan rely largely on voluntary compliance, but too few farmers are participating, the report found.
Since the Toledo drinking water crisis, OSU, the Ohio Farm Bureau and other farming organizations have contributed millions into research and programs designed to reduce fertilizer runoff. The Ohio Legislature also approved a bill mandating fertilizer certification training for all farmers using nitrogen and other soil nutrients.
However, the study Tuesday says such measures will not be enough.
“Our results suggest that for most of the scenarios we tested, it will not be possible to achieve the new target nutrient loads without very significant, large-scale implementation of these agricultural practices,” said Don Scavia, a University of Michigan ecologist who led the study.
The study focused on the Maumee River watershed, which includes 17 counties in northwestern Ohio and smaller sections of Michigan and Indiana. High phosphorus runoff from farms in that area is the primary cause of toxic algae in western Lake Erie, it said.
Policy alternatives described as “most promising” by Jay Martin of Ohio State University, the report’s co-author, included widespread use of the best-management practices and conversion of some croplands to switchgrass or other grasses. One called for removing nearly 30,000 acres in the watershed from production. That’s the equivalent of 6,300 farms, as the average farm in the area consists of 235 acres.
Such a requirement could drive some farms out of business, said Joe Cornely of the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation.
Cornely said some parts of the report repeated what they already knew. First, farmers need to play a significant role in the solutions. Second, emphasizing the impractical solutions to the problem like removing 30,000 acres of farmland from production without making the public aware of the impact this will have on farmers and agriculture is not realistic.”
Cornely criticized the study for focusing only on the Maumee basin and agriculture. “The Army Corps of Engineer’s study said 40 percent of the runoff came from the Detroit River, 40 percent from the Maumee Basin and 20 percent from other sources. So even if the recommendations are implemented and the reduction in nutrients is 40 percent, that is just 40 percent of 40 percent of the problem — 16 percent,” he said.
Regarding this report coming out just as his demonstration farms are gearing up to look at ways farmers can reduce phosphorus runoff, Heilers said, “Unfortunately, things don’t move fast enough for the regulatory community and environmental groups. I think there needs to be a little patience and time given for the research to figure out what is actually working. That is what our project will be doing — taking things that work and actually putting it on the ground, monitor and continue to see what improvements can be made. Just throwing mandatory farming out there isn’t going to solve anything. There is such a wide range of farm management styles, soil types and topography, it is not as cut and dry as they would like to make it.”
He said it is disappointing when they, “throw that image out there, when people see the headlines that say we are not doing enough. That is a bit disappointing. Farmers are doing what they are told to do and the best they can.”
Gary Brock is editor of the Civitas Media agriculture publication Rural Life Today. He can be reached at 937-556-5759 or on Twitter at GBrock4.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.