Lake Erie

Water quality law and program update for Ohio agriculture

Winter’s cold may have cooled the algae growth in Lake Erie, but it continues to be a hot topic at the Ohio AgriBusiness Association (OABA) Industry Conference Dinner and Annual Meeting.

A large crowd of representatives from 250 different Ohio grain, feed, seed, fertilizer, and chemical companies were in attendance at the event to hear a number of presentations on water quality. The 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program, which is administered by OABA, was part of the water quality discussion.

“We are really excited about the certification program and within the first couple of years we would like to see a million acres of ag land that is in accordance with the 4 Rs,” said Carrie Vollmer-Sanders, Western Lake Erie Basin project director for The Nature Conservancy. “When someone gets audited for the program, it may be that not all of the pieces and parts are there, but the education is happening and they are making progress. There are a lot of retailers taking steps to become certified but they are not there yet. We are really hopeful that in the next 12 months or so that we will make some great strides on all fronts.”

The 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification program was launched in March 2014 by the Nutrient Stewardship Council and encourages agricultural retailers, service providers and other certified professionals to adopt proven best practices through the 4 Rs. Outlining 43 criteria to be implemented, the voluntary program is staggered over a three-year period. There are several key practices being emphasized.

“We really promote not applying fertilizer on frozen or snow-covered ground. Phosphorus needs to attach to the soil and if it is frozen, there is no attaching going on. The other thing is not applying phosphorus before a heavy rain event of an inch of rain forecasted in the next 12 hours,” Vollmer-Sanders said. “Those large rain events are going to cause surface runoff and if you broadcast that fertilizer it is going to go right down to the ditch and out to Lake Erie. We all play a role in helping to protect our water quality while growing a stable food source. We need to make sure we look at each acre, how much food we can grow and apply the fertilizer accordingly.”

Cover crops and other practices can play a role in meeting the standards of the certification.

“Cover crops can do a lot for the health of the soil and keeping microbes fed during the months when we’re not growing corn or soybeans. Then when you plant the corn or soybeans, that soil life is there to help those crops grow,” she said. “There might be something a little different for every farmer. It might be cover crops, filter strips, thinking about tile drainage, or surface inlets with French drains to filter surface water. There are many new practices out there and each farmer needs to decide what works for them and think about how nutrients move off their farm and how to mitigate that.”

In addition to this voluntary program, the mandated water quality requirements for Ohio agriculture were also outlined at the OABA event.

“Senate Bill 150 established certification program for fertilizer application. More than 1,200 have been trained so far,” said Matt Beal, chief of the Division of Plant Health with the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) at the OABA event. “Anybody that applies more than 50 acres of commercial fertilizer needs to be certified by September of 2017.”

Beal said the definition of fertilizer in the legislation does not include lime, limestone, marl, underground bone, water, residual from farm products, or animal manure unless it is being sold as a fertilizer product.

“The law also exempts starter fertilizer that goes through the planter. If that is all you do and hire the rest of your fertilizer done than you are exempt,” Beal said. “The law allows for an uncertified person to apply fertilizer if they are under the direct supervision of a person who is certified.”

The implementation of the program is very similar to that of the Ohio pesticide applicator license.

“If you have pesticide applicator license, you must attend a two- or three-hour approved fertilizer certification program sponsored by OSU Extension and approved by the ODA then complete an ODA form at the end of meeting,” Beal said. “Then ODA processes completed forms and mails you your yellow fertilizer certification cards. It looks just like your green pesticide card. Recertification will coincide with pesticide license recertification. It will come up every three years. There is no additional cost if your pesticide license is maintained, you buy one get one free.”

Trained Certified Crop Advisors and Certified Livestock Managers are exempt from fertilizer training requirements but need to call the ODA to get the form and fill it out.

“All others must attend a three-hour class and pay a $30 fee,” Beal said. “Then everyone must have two hours of continuing education every three years.”

The system is up and running, but the rules are subject to changes under the authority of the ODA.

“The ODA director has a lot of authority to tweak rules as needed, more than I have seen in most any other regulation,” Beal said.

Record keeping requirements for the program include: the name of certificate holder; name of applicator working under direct supervision (if applicable); application date; field identification; fertilizer analysis and rate of application; application method; soil conditions at time of application (ground frozen or snow covered, etc.); temperature and precipitation at time of application; and the weather forecast for the following day.

“You must keep those records. You do not have to turn them in but you have to make them available,” Beal said. “You will not have people knocking on your door every day looking for them, but if something goes wrong, you need to have them. The information needs to be recorded within 24 hours of application and you must keep it for three years. There is no set form required.”

Getting all of Ohio farmers to meet the requirements and enforcing them will be a daunting, but realistic task, said John Schlichter, ODA deputy director.

“There are 45,000 farms that are 50 acres are more. We figure that some of those that don’t have to have it will go ahead and get it. We also expect to see three or four people from some of the same farms,” Schlichter said. “This will have to be a complaint-based program. It will be a large task of enforcing this. We have record-keeping rules and we will be doing some checks. And, when you do some checks in a community it will make it to the coffee shop conversations. We are going to catch the bad actors and deal with them, but we also want agriculture to stay around and remain profitable.”

In addition to SB 150, Ohio legislators are working on crafting additional water quality legislation.

“Senate Bill 1 was recently introduced and they are looking at the same kinds of measures included in House Bill 490 last year, including spreading fertilizer on frozen ground, unless it is incorporated,” Schlichter said. “It is very similar to 490 right now, but there will be some amendments to it moving forward. They are taking amendments until Feb. 12 and they are planning on getting it out in the month of February. It also includes some work with the EPA and with septic systems.”

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