Partnerships for better soil health and water quality

By Kurt Knebusch, Ohio State University CFAES

For Rachel Cochran, a typical day involves working one-on-one with farmers, while practicing social distancing, of course.

“It could be contacting them about pulling cores for a soil health study,” she said. “It could be talking to them about potential best management practices that they might be thinking about using.”

For Boden Fisher, his workday could involve being invited to attend a farmer’s wheat harvest, allowing Fisher to measure the crop’s quality, part of a study comparing the use of top-dressed manure and commercial fertilizer.

For Nick Eckel, a typical workday, and every workday in general, means helping farmers successfully implement new conservation practices.

The practices, Eckel said, “hopefully will be sustainable for future generations to build upon.”

The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES) recently hired six new water quality associates to work in northwest Ohio, and Cochran, Fisher, and Eckel are three of them.

Working through Ohio State University Extension, each of the new associates serves three to five counties. Together, they’re part of a new effort by the CFAES Water Quality Initiative (WQI) to learn more about and boost soil health, improve Lake Erie’s water quality, and keep the region’s farms productive.

Northwest Ohio is the focus for two reasons. The first reason is that the region is rich in farming. The second reason is that summertime harmful algal blooms continue to plague western Lake Erie. Scientists say the blooms’ main driver is phosphorus runoff from farm fields in the region, which is located in Lake Erie’s watershed.

Phosphorus, a nutrient needed by crops, is often present in fertilizers and manure that farmers spread on their fields.

Key collaborators on the project include the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), provider of half the funding for the positions, and a new and growing partnership between CFAES and Cargill.

 

New ties with the region’s farmers

As part of that partnership, Cargill sales representatives in northwest Ohio are encouraging their client farmers to work with their county’s new water quality associate.

WQI Director Heather Raymond said those new connections, for example, can:

  • help a farmer interpret his or her soil test information and estimate the nutrient loss potential;
  • evaluate different nutrient management practices and the use of technology to support the practices;
  • decide which practices are a good fit for their operation in terms of both soil health and return on investment; and
  • help ensure new practices are implemented successfully.

Cargill is providing the project with new equipment and technology, including advanced tools for monitoring water quality and drones for checking soil and crop conditions.

Matthew Romanko, also one of the new associates, said the Cargill partnership “has been a tremendous support mechanism” for the project.

“The issue we face with water quality in our region is of vital importance. It requires cooperation from all sectors of the community,” Romanko said.

Jill Kolling, Cargill’s vice president of global sustainability, said the company is proud to partner with CFAES.

“We recognize the important role Cargill plays in developing solutions that improve water use in agricultural supply chains. Working together with CFAES, we will partner with farmers to help them adopt farming practices that improve water quality and availability, while supporting their livelihoods and community resilience,” Kolling said.

“Agriculture is how we will protect and enhance the waterways in Ohio,” she said.

Cathann A. Kress, Ohio State vice president for agricultural administration and dean of CFAES, said teaming up to support the water quality associates is a first example of what will be a broader, long-term partnership with Cargill.

“It started with a conversation I had with Cargill early last year. The focus was on our grand challenges — in particular, sustainability, and the work our college is doing around that area,” Kress said. “From there, the starting point for the partnership became water quality in northwest Ohio and throughout the state. It was a natural fit for Cargill to partner with and support our researchers and OSU Extension faculty to share and help implement water quality best practices with stakeholders in Ohio.”

“We see this as an ongoing partnership. We’ve already started talking about the next projects to partner on,” she said.

Among those projects could be further on-farm research; a new network for collecting water quality data; and a new water quality research consortium, still in the discussion stage, teaming up scientists from CFAES, elsewhere at Ohio State, government agencies, and other universities.

Ohio Department of Agriculture Director Dorothy Pelanda said the partnership between Cargill and CFAES “is an incredible example of farmers, agribusiness, and higher education working together to address water quality concerns in our state.”

“Progressive, forward-thinking efforts like this, in conjunction with Gov. DeWine’s H2Ohio Initiative, will accelerate the state’s progress and illustrate the fact that water quality is important to everyone,” Pelanda said.

Joy Mulinex, director of the Lake Erie Commission, praised the new partnership, too.

“It’s exciting to see the additional teamwork that is happening in northwest Ohio between Ohio State University and Cargill to improve Lake Erie by working with farmers to determine what conservation measures make sense for them,” Mulinex said.

“These efforts will complement Gov. DeWine’s H2Ohio Initiative, which will provide resources to farmers who need help undertaking new conservation practices to keep nutrients from washing off their farms and out into Lake Erie,” she said.

Meanwhile, the six new associates are continuing their work: sharing details on best nutrient management practices, working with farmers to adopt those practices, and conducting on-farm research to measure the practices’ costs, effectiveness, and benefits.

Collaborating with them, in addition to local farmers and Cargill staff, are Columbus- and Wooster-based CFAES researchers, as well as county educators and statewide specialists affiliated with OSU Extension.

Fisher, for instance, was invited to participate in the aforementioned wheat harvest by the farmer and by Glen Arnold, OSU Extension’s field specialist for manure nutrient management.

Arnold, based in Findlay in Hancock County, is leading a manure-related study that counts the farmer among its cooperators.

“Glen is providing us a lot of opportunities,” Fisher said.

Fisher and the other associates also are collaborating with local soil and water conservation district staff and assisting with collecting data to help evaluate the potential water quality benefits of new practices.

“It’s going to take a team approach to answer these important regional water quality questions, and we’re happy to help out,” Raymond said.

Fisher works in Hancock, Putnam, and Hardin counties; Cochran, in Paulding, Defiance, and Van Wert counties; Eckel, in Wood, Henry, and Ottawa counties; Romanko, in Erie, Crawford, Seneca, Sandusky, and Wyandot counties.

Rounding out the new associates are Jordan Beck, serving Fulton, Williams, and Lucas counties, and Brigitte Moneymaker, working in Auglaize, Allen, and Mercer counties.

“We have the tools to make a difference,” Romanko said of the team, citing advancing technology and a growing understanding of environmental processes. Northwest Ohio’s water quality issues, he said, could be “minimized with a sustained effort and focus by the regional community and larger public.”

Raymond called the partnerships with NRCS and Cargill “vital for tackling the water quality problems that face Lake Erie.”

“NRCS is providing the backbone support for boots on the ground, while Cargill is bringing access to new farm partners and support for soil health and water quality sample analysis and advanced technology,” she said. “If we can show the soil health and return-on-investment benefits, we can promote long-term adoption of practices, even when cost-share funds may no longer be available, and help demonstrate how you can be profitable and improve water quality at the same time.”

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