Blanchard River Demonstration Farms will be a useful tool for water quality

The Blanchard River Demonstration Farms project is a $1 million venture between the United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation. The goal of the effort is to demonstrate on-farm conservation practices to help improve water and nutrient conservation. The Demonstration Farms aim to help producers find the right combination of practices that reduce nutrient and sediment loss while minimally impacting their financial bottom line.

“This is a showcase of multiple conservation practices on three farms within the Blanchard Valley Watershed,” said Aaron Heilers, Project Manager for the Blanchard River Demonstration Farms Network. “Our vision is that any farmer in the state can come and view these farms, see what is happening from a conservation standpoint and determine if a practice that is happening within this project might work on their farm as well.”

Aaron Heilers, the Project Manager for the Blanchard River Demonstration Farms Network, discusses edge of field testing being done at Kurt Farms

Aaron Heilers, the Project Manager for the Blanchard River Demonstration Farms Network, discusses edge of field testing being done at Kurt Farms

“Every operation around Ohio is different and so growers can pick and choose which practice might be best for their home farm and know, with scientific data backing up those practices, that they are actually improving water quality that leaves their farm.”

One of the biggest variables when it comes to conservation efforts is economics. More major practice changes are not feasible for smaller operations as those farms aren’t able to spread the cost of making those changes over a large number of acres. That was taken into consideration when choosing demonstration farms.

Although all three farms are taking a different approach to see what improvements need to be made to their conservation plans, the main focus is on the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service “Edge of Field” testing.

“Our results will fall into four broad categories including the placement of nutrients and getting them in contact with the soil because we do see that does reduce nutrient loss,” Heilers said. “We have also placed phosphorus removal beds, nitrogen bioreactors and filter strips at the edges of fields and we are monitoring activity in some streams as well. The goal is for a farmer to be able to combine a practice from each one of those categories and when the nutrient savings of what is being kept in the field is added up it can really make a difference.”

Aside from farmers gleaning valuable information from taking a look at conservation testing results on the demonstration farms, there is also a hope that these efforts will renew conversations between farmers, non-farm residents of the watershed, policy makers and others so that everyone can realize the impacts of decisions that are being made off of the farm are having on the farmers in their community. The Ohio County Commissioners Association and a group of Ohio agriculture lawyers are slated for a visit to the Demonstration Farms and a field day is also being planned for this summer.

Kellogg Farms, located in Forest, is one of the operations taking part in the project. Bill Kellogg and his son, Shane, own and operate the farm, consisting of 5,000 acres of corn and soybeans. The Kelloggs have committed 305 acres to the Demonstration Farms program.

Shane Kellogg describes new equipment being used to better his farms nutrient management practices

Shane Kellogg describes new equipment being used to better his farms nutrient management practices

“Sharing some of the things that we do on our farm was out of my comfort zone at first,” Bill Kellogg admits. “We have been proactive with our conservation efforts for the past 12 to 15 years, but after the Toledo water crisis we knew that if we didn’t start accelerating those efforts we would have other people coming in and telling us what we can and can’t do on our farm. That’s why we wanted to get involved, to be proactive and do the right things.”

Some of the practices that the Kelloggs are trying out on their farm include cover crops, grassed waterways, pollinator habitats, reduced tillage, and subsurface nutrient placement.

“Strip tillage is a big part of what we are doing with our nutrient placement,” Kellogg said. “We soil test and utilize variable rate technology as well, which makes the amount of fertilizer we put on about 33% more efficient that what we were doing before strip tillage.”

Chris Kurt owns and operates Kurt Farms, a 470-acre corn and soybean operation in Dunkirk. Chris has offered up 168 acres to the Demonstration Farms effort. Previously, Kurt worked with The Nature Conservancy and Hardin Soil and Water Conservation District to construct a two-stage ditch in the Demonstration Farms project area.

Chris Kurt (right) talks about the phosphorous removal beds in place at his farm

Chris Kurt (right) talks about the phosphorous removal beds in place at his farm

“We have several projects happening on my farm right now that will, in my mind, help me save money and keep the nutrients out of the watershed,” Kurt said. “Obviously if the nutrients that I spread on the field stay in the field they will give me the most benefit and a cleaner watershed benefits my neighbors too.”

In addition to the two-stage ditch on Kurt’s farm, he also has a phosphorus removal bed, along with drainage water management and edge of field monitoring systems in place.

McComb is the home of Stateler Family Farms. Anthony Stateler and his dad, Duane, farm corn, soybeans and wheat on approximately 600 acres in Hancock County. They also have a 7,200 head wean-to-finish swine operation. The Statelers have shared 243 acres with the Demonstration Farms project.

Anthony Stateler shows visitors what tests are being done of their farm to protect water quality

Anthony Stateler shows visitors what tests are being done of their farm to protect water quality

“The reason we signed up to be a demonstration farm is to try and put some data out there to find out what we are doing right and see what we need to do better,” Anthony Stateler said. “Over the next two years we will be able to get some baseline numbers for where we are at and to be able to find out what nutrients we are losing, if any, and what practices can we improve on to better our nutrient management attempts.”

The Statelers will be practicing variable rate manure application as part of the program with the Blanchard River Demonstration Farms Network. Developing a wetland with a pollinator habitat and building an animal mortality composting facility is also part of the plan.

Although outreach and efforts around water quality have been ramped up by the Ohio Farm Bureau and other state farm organizations since 2014’s Toledo water crisis, it is not a knee jerk reaction.

“The challenges and opportunities in the water quality arena is nothing new to Ohio agriculture,” said Adam Sharp, executive vice president of the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation. “Seeing how effective current conservation practices are and testing new ones to improve water quality and nutrient management is critical and the Blanchard River Demonstration Farms is so important to those efforts.”

Many other factors can impact water quality. Numerous projects at the Demonstration Farms, like home septic system replacement, abandoned oil well removal and abandoned water well removal seek to show the importance of taking a comprehensive approach to water quality in the Blanchard River Watershed and beyond.

AUDIO: The Ohio Ag Net’s Ty Higgins visits with Project Manager Aaron Heilers about the Blanchard River Demonstration Farms Network

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