Healthy soils lead to healthy waters

The Healthy Soils for Healthy Waters Symposium Series began with a single-day workshop Sept. 15 bringing together one hundred invited participants from a broad spectrum of backgrounds including farmers, researchers, and environmental agency representatives at the state and federal level.

Participants addressed the urgent need for a coherent, interdisciplinary, and systemic approach to managing nutrient impacts on water resources in the Great Lakes and Mississippi River watersheds. Sixteen research case studies presented at the workshop provided a background for breakout group discussions, where overall themes included identifying the positive and negative characteristics of established best management practices and emphasizing the essential need for including farmers in the development of nutrient management approaches.

There was general consensus among participants on the elements necessary for any successful approach for reducing nutrient impact on water resources:

1) It must not affect productivity or profitability of farms.

2) It must include farmers, land tenants, and other stakeholders in all phases of decision making.

3) It must include open communication between people from a variety of knowledge bases, including agronomists, agriculture economists, sociologists, educators, farmers, and farm laborers.

Experts agree that water quality issues caused by harmful algal blooms and widespread hypoxia in Lake Erie and the Gulf of Mexico are caused by excess loading of nutrients, particularly nitrogen and phosphorous. Fertilizer runoff and drainage from agricultural fields is a major contributor of these nutrients. With this in mind, the conference discussions focused on practices that can improve the health of both agricultural fields and of the water bodies receiving runoff from agricultural fields. These practices included strategies to reduce initial, in-field nutrient loss from fertilizer application, as well as methods to retain nutrients in runoff from reaching downstream ecosystems. One of the primary challenges is identifying what goal for nutrient runoff concentrations would result in improved downstream water quality for a watershed, and definitive agreement on these goals is still lacking.

 

Why algae and hypoxia?

Many people concerned with issues of downstream water quality have wondered, “Why are we getting algal blooms and hypoxic zones when nutrient use is down and farmers are actively using advised management practices?” This theme led to discussions of the complexity and difficulties involved in linking a large scale goal (the reduction of nutrient run-off to improve water quality) with small-scale practices specific to local climates, soil types, and farming practices. It was acknowledged that each farm faces a unique set of challenges to preventing nutrient loss, and that solutions must therefore be sensitive to site-specific requirements. A better understanding of why some management practices work in some locations as opposed to others must be developed in order to make practical, targeted, and effective suggestions to farmers.

Prof. Andy Ward organized the workshop for the OSU College of Food, Agriculture, and Environmental Sciences, with support from Greenleaf Advisors, LLC, and Gypsoil. The workshop included presentations by representatives from EPA, USDA-NRCS, universities, industry, and environmental organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund and the Nature Conservancy. Jim Moseley and Bill Richards, both long-time no-till farmers with experience working in Washington for USDA, were two of the distinguished speakers.

Smaller facilitated group discussions following those presentations served as an initial effort to synthesize existing knowledge and address problems while a comprehensive approach is developed.

The series will continue May 18-21, 2015, with a three-day symposium in Columbus (http://symposium.greenleafadvisors.net/). The Symposium will be held in conjunction with meetings of the Gulf of Mexico Interagency Hypoxia Task Force and a recently-established Land Grant University Initiative to assist the Task Force.

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