By Dusty Sonnenberg, CCA, Ohio Field Leader, a project of the Ohio Soybean Council and soybean check-off.
Working together, collecting data, and setting measurable goals were common themes in testimony given by the Ohio Agriculture Conservation Initiative (OACI) before the Ohio House Agriculture and Conservation Committee on Tuesday. Several representatives from the various organizations that make up OACI shared details of the individual aspects of the OACI and explained specific research being conducted and on-farm examples.
Scott Higgins, CEO of the Ohio Dairy Producers Association, and Heather Taylor-Miesle, Executive Director of the Ohio Environmental Council jointly testified to explain the cooperation between the agriculture and environmental communities to come together and form the OACI. “On behalf of the agriculture, conservation and environmental community, we stand before you demonstrating unity in a proactive and collaborative approach to improving Ohio’s waterways and lakes,” said Higgins.
“We all really want healthy communities and to be a part of the solution,” said Taylor-Miesle. “We don’t always agree on everything, but we did agree that the only way to move forward was together. We began a journey to openly and transparently review the science surrounding toxic algae as well as it’s impact on the cost of water quality.”
Dr. Cathann A. Kress, Vice President for Agricultural Administration and Dean, College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences at The Ohio State University explained how the scientists and educators at Ohio State are an integral part of OACI and engage with it. “At our college, we believe science isn’t done until it is communicated and implemented,” said Kress. “Adaptive management of climate and environmental related issues is a key focus of our college, meaning that assisting and working with OACI merges perfectly with our colleges goals and our purposes as a land grant institution.”
Kris Swartz, Chairman of OACI, Wood County Farmer, and member of the Wood County SWCD Board of Supervisors, addressed the committee and explained the composition of the OACI board. Swartz stated that he is certified through the OACI program and is enrolled in H2Ohio. “The OACI board brings together 11 directors, five of whom are farmers from around the state, three are leaders from agriculture organizations representing row-crop and livestock farming, and three are leaders from non-governmental organizations representing our environmental partners,” said Swartz. “OACI is broken into two arms. The first is Assessment, which is a random, statistically valid survey of farmer practices in a given HUC 8 Watershed. The second arm is Certification, which is a voluntary reporting of farmer practices.”
Janelle Mead, CEO, Ohio Federation of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, addressed the committee and explained the role of the Federation and her role as Administrator for the OACI program. “There is a natural connection between OACI and Ohio’s Soil and Water Conservation Districts. For more than 77 years, soil and water conservation districts have been the boots on the ground encouraging farmers to try new things and promoting conservation practices. They have relationships with farmers and are trusted resources,” said Mead.
Jessica D’Ambrosio, Ohio Agriculture Project Director for The Nature Conservancy, and Jordan Hoewischer, Director of Water Quality Research with The Ohio Farm Bureau Federation further explained the details of the certification program for OACI, and its link to H2Ohio. “The certification process encourages farmers to think about the conservation practices on their farm, and H2Ohio gives them the funding to make a change,” said D’Ambrosio.
Hoewischer explained the idea of automating the program by creating the smart phone app for OACI, and how the overall process helps farmers evaluate their current status and encourages them to move up the conservation ladder. “We created a mobile app that allows farmers to enter their information on their mobile phone,” said Hoewischer. “Eventually having the OACI certification will create opportunities for farmers to be eligible for other programs and funding opportunities. Components of the OACI portal include indicating soil test frequency and how farmers select their nutrient application rates and placement practices. It also includes identifying infield management such as tillage or cover crops. It also comprises structural practices such as blind inlets or water control structures. Not all practices have a fit in all parts of the state, so it is designed to fit their farm and area.”
Kirk Merritt, Executive Director of the Ohio Soybean Association, provided more background of the assessment program. “The goal of the assessment program is to implement a statistically valid survey of conservation practices on farm fields in a given watershed,” said Merritt. “Basically, we want to understand what is happening on the fields in that watershed. We are trying to answer the question of how widely the practices are being implemented in a watershed. Confidentially is important and we want to assure the farmer that the information is valid and also confidential, no one farmers data will be released or able to be identified. ”
The testimony concluded with Dr. John Fulton, Professor and Extension Specialist explaining how the fields would be selected, and how the data collected with the app and survey would be analyzed. Jeff Duling, Putnam County Farmer and SWCD Board Member shared his personal philosophy of conservation, and why his family has participated in numerous conservation programs. “There is no silver bullet to solving the water quality problems,” said Duling. “With OACI certification, we are simply asking farmers to think about their farming operation. It is not a difficult process. It is a chance to evaluate what we do on our farms and consider how we can voluntarily improve.”