Will water quality politics turn the tide towards more ag regulation?

Earlier this week a University of Michigan Water Center study focused on the Maumee River Watershed was released and has caused more than a few ripples in the ongoing agriculture blame game with regard to Lake Erie water quality.

The study used computer modeling to look at different management and policy scenarios that could achieve the goals set to reduce phosphorus levels entering Lake Erie by 40%. The policy alternatives described as “most promising” by Jay Martin of Ohio State University (co-author of the study) included increased use of the existing best-management practices and conversion of croplands to switchgrass or other grasses. One possible scenario that the study determined could achieve the 40% reduction goal suggested removing nearly 30,000 acres in the watershed from agricultural crop production.

“The study really criticizes Ohio farmers for not implementing best management practices on managing the nutrients and fertilizer they put on the land. We’re really concerned about that. We know that Ohio farmers are doing the best they can to keep the nutrients on the field. We felt that this study was kind of a punch in the gut to Ohio farmers and we really feel like we need to punch back,” said Kirk Merritt, with the Ohio Soybean Council. “We don’t think it is even good research. It is essentially a bunch of computer simulations and from that they are extrapolating new policy and new mandates that we really think would be a detriment to Ohio agriculture and the farmers that we represent.”

Listen to the full conversation between Merritt and Ohio Ag Net’s Dale Minyo regarding the research.

Kirk Merritt Michigan Study response

The study quickly generated agricultural blame for Lake Erie’s water woes. The Associated Press had a story on the study that generated headlines such as this: “Report: Farmers doing too little to stop Lake Erie algae.” In the AP story, Ohio Farm Bureau’s Joe Cornely was critical of the limited focus of the study to agriculture in a specific region, but Cornely’s more agriculturally friendly (and reality-based) sentiments near the end of the story were largely swamped in the mire of algae-panic-inducing policy promoters.

When talking about the interview and subsequent AP story, Cornely expressed more dissatisfaction with the research.

“Our biggest concern with the report is that it proposes some very impractical solutions that could have severe economic and social consequences. Worse, it creates unrealistic expectations among the public. There are no scenarios under which the problem gets fixed immediately,” Cornely said. “Another concern is that it singles out the Maumee watershed, which according to the Army Corp of Engineers, contributes 40 percent of the nutrient load. Why give the impression that the whole problem can be fixed solely by farmers in a single geography?”

The Columbus Dispatch version of the story included this first sentence: “Farming practices in western Ohio must undergo major changes if there is any hope of reducing the toxic algae blooms that plague Lake Erie every summer, according to a new study.”

Jeff Reutter, the former director of Ohio State University’s Sea Grant and Stone Laboratory, was quoted in Dispatch story saying: “Based on the report, it seems foolish for anyone to say ‘We only want to do this voluntarily.’…I think we’re at the point that we have to recognize that you can’t do it only voluntarily. … So what kind of policies do we need, including regulations, incentives, whatever they might be, to get that amount of participation?”

Needless to say, the Ohio agricultural organizations that have collectively contributed millions of dollars in funding to address agriculture’s role in water quality issues were less than pleased with the general tone of the stories that have been widely circulated since the release of the University of Michigan study. Chad Kemp, President of the Ohio Corn & Wheat Growers Association and Adam Graham, President of the Ohio Soybean Association worked together on this joint statement on the study.

“A recent study released by the University of Michigan has received significant attention. Ohio Corn & Wheat and the Ohio Soybean Association have major concerns about the unrealistic, one-size-fits-all approach of the study and the calls for additional regulations.

“The study’s authors also charge that Ohio farmers will not voluntarily adopt practices necessary to protect water quality. We know farmers have already done so.

“We are very disappointed that a representative of The Ohio State University (OSU), who co-authored the study, stated that the ‘most promising’ scenario was to reduce food grown in our state by eliminating farmland equal to the size of Dayton, hurting many small family farms. This is unrealistic, disregards the positive economic impact of grain farming in Ohio, and the need to grow food for a growing population.

“The study relies on computer simulations that apply blanket practices over the watershed, which is unrealistic and impractical. The study did not take into account current adoption of conservation practices or the fact that some practices work best in certain geographies. In order to achieve real success, farmers need to be able to customize their conservation choices to what fits best for their farm. Farming is not a one-size-fits-all practice.

“With support from farmers, Ohio has adopted unprecedented mandatory policies, such as a fertilizer applicators’ licensing program, and is leading the country through cooperation among stakeholders and a proactive approach toward tackling this challenge.

“A survey of Ohio grain farmers shows an 88% increase in farmers adopting grid sampling to test their soil and a 184% increase in the awareness and adoption of the 4Rs of nutrient management (right source, right rate, right time, right place) in only the past two years. Farmers currently implement multiple practices on their farms, yet the scenarios in the study only account for a few of the options available.

“Through the hands-on work of Dr. Elizabeth Dayton, a researcher with OSU, we are gaining invaluable insights from real farms that take all practices into account. Her research shows that farmers are taking the right first step, and there is tremendous opportunity to make additional voluntary changes that will reduce runoff.

“Sustainability is more than just environmental quality. It’s about finding the right balance of environment, economics and a reliable food supply. We need to take a measured approach to solving this challenge and not waste time and resources on studies that do not yield information that is applicable to real farms. It is also foolish to recommend policy changes without on-farm data.

We all share the same goal of reducing the impact of runoff on Lake Erie. Farmers have repeatedly shown through their actions and their funding priorities that they are focused on this issue. Research, modeling, and asking the right questions can lead to solutions, but it must be based on the changing conditions that challenge farmers every single day.

“Ohio grain farmers will continue to champion reasonable and responsible solutions to preserve and improve water quality.”


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One comment

  1. How about looking at the hard possible reasons, the invasive mussels. Zebra mussels favor eating beneficial algae which also leads to drops in plankton and alewife fish and eventually salmon. Anyway this leaves an unbalance in nature as the mussels eat benefical algae leaving the blue green cyanobacter a vaccuum in nature that it will readily fill. This leads to the dead zones and other issues caused by the cyanobacter. Phosphorous is just a nutrient that exists that many beneficial and toxic forms of algae feed upon. The unbalance is likely caused by the mussels that feed excessively on benefical algae. Leaving a unbalance from that side of the problem. Also I doubt they take in to much consideration millions of geese and cormorants that contibute high phosphorous defecation right in and by waterways.

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