The 4Rs have been in place in Ohio’s farm fields for a decade of improving water quality.

A decade of the 4Rs

By Matt Reese

Though I can get there if I really think about it, it is hard for me to remember a time when I did not know what the 4Rs stood for. It seems for a while, the program founded on the principles of applying fertilizers at the right source, right rate, right time, and right place was an ever-present staple of just about every story I wrote.

Leading up to the Toledo water crises in August of 2014, the groundwork was already being proactively implemented by the agricultural community to address the role of excess farm nutrient runoff into Ohio waterways. Now commemorating 10 years of the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program, the simple, science-based 4Rs have proven to be effective as certified retailers have been working with farmers and crop consultants to put those principles into practice.

Among the first retailers to gain 4R Certification was the Legacy Farmers Cooperative with five agronomy locations in the Western Lake Erie Basin. Keith Palmer, an agronomy associate for Legacy’s Custar facility, helped a local farmer implement the 4Rs who was grappling with nutrient loss and deteriorating soil health.

“Despite efforts to maintain crop yields, the farmer witnessed a decline in soil fertility over time. When our agronomy retail location joined the 4R program, we saw an opportunity to assist this farmer and implement sustainable solutions. Through a comprehensive soil analysis, we identified nutrient deficiencies and imbalances, prompting the development of a customized nutrient management plan aligned with the 4R principles. By applying the right source, rate, time, and place of nutrients, we recommended variable rate fertilizer application so the nutrients were going where they were needed,” Palmer said. “Adjusting application rates and timing optimized nutrient uptake and reduced losses. We also encouraged the adoption of conservation practices like cover cropping and reduced tillage, improving soil structure, organic matter content, and nutrient retention. As a result, the farmer experienced a remarkable turnaround. The farm’s soil health improved, translating into increased yields. The farmer also achieved cost savings through improved grid sampling and variable rate fertilizer. This success story exemplifies the transformative impact of the 4R program. The program’s emphasis on responsible nutrient management and sustainable practices gave us the tools to provide targeted solutions, delivering tangible and lasting outcomes for the farmer’s operation.”

Multiplied exponentially over 2.5 million acres serviced by 56 4R Certified agricultural retailers, this simple set of “rights” is making a difference. Over the last decade, the 4R Program has seen a reduction in phosphorus application to Ohio fields by 16% compared to 20 years ago. The certification program also expanded from the Western Lake Erie Basin to statewide and international recognition, with the establishment of the Global 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Council in 2019.

“The journey of the 4R program over the past 10 years is a testament to what can be achieved when industry leaders, environmental groups and the agricultural community come together with a common goal,” said Aaron Heilers, executive director of the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program. “As we celebrate this milestone, we are reminded of our continued responsibility to promote these best practices that the 4R program stands for and protect Ohio’s waterways.”

Even bigger than the certification program, the 4Rs represent the efforts of a broad, unified and unique coalition of agricultural groups, environmental groups, universities and researchers, and government entities that set the stage for programs like the Ohio Agricultural Conservation Initiative and H2Ohio (which announced expansion for statewide farmer sign-ups starting April 22).

“As we mark this 10-year milestone, the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program looks forward to another decade of innovation, collaboration and leadership in sustainable agriculture and environmental protection,” said Nick Franks, chair of the Ohio Nutrient Stewardship Council.

In a nod to the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program, Ohio’s Country Journal is doing a story series this summer highlighting some 4R Certified retailers around the state and the success stories they have seen in terms of positive outcomes through the program for farms, farmers and water quality.

Time after time, farmers have proven they have a genuine desire to do what is right for the land and best for the environment, but they need the resources to be able to guide them in the proper direction based on science and the reality of what is happening in their fields. This desire is at the heart of the 4R Certification program which has proven for 10 years it was the right program, at the right place, at the right time, with the right people to move the needle on water quality in Ohio.

For more information on the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program and how to become certified, please visit

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One comment

  1. Hi ,
    Can we talk ?
    I live in Warren County . I wanted to
    Be State Rep District 55 because of
    The rapid development .that was one of many reasons .
    Warren County GOP did not endorse me
    They endorsed Michele Teska. ..

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