Kasich move dictates some field practices

Gov. John Kasich signed an executive order Wednesday mandating regulations on the methods some farmers use to fertilize crops.

Although Lake Erie research experts were unclear Thursday on details of the measure, Laura Johnson, director of Heidelberg University’s National Center for Water Quality Research, said she briefly reviewed the order.

“What I’ve seen is that they have targeted the southern part of the Maumee River,” Johnson said during a news conference at Stone Lab to announce the harmful algal bloom forecast for this year. “Farmers are going to be expected to have nutrient management plans.”

She compared the new measures to those put in place for farm ground around Grand Lake St. Marys a few years ago.

“In theory that would be very effective,” she said.

It would require soil testing to determine the amount of phosphorus already present.

“Measuring the phosphorus there and putting on the right amount,” she said.

Johnson said placement of phosphorus 2 inches below the soil surface also is an effective way to lessen runoff.

“How quickly it’s going to be effective is another question,” she said. “If levels are elevated, it can take a while to bring them down.”

Johnson said most farmers have educated themselves on how to apply fertilizers more efficiently.

“Data show there’s a lot of potential there,” she said. “Test your soils and don’t add too much.”

An Associated Press report said Kasich’s order calls for issuing “distressed watershed” designations for eight creeks and rivers in northwest Ohio that are the source for large amounts of phosphorus-rich fertilizer and manure.

Those designations would require farmers to evaluate their land and make changes — some of those could be costly and force farmers to buy expensive machinery that injects fertilizer into the ground or build storage for livestock manure.

If approved by the state’s soil and water commission, the eight designated areas would affect nearly 2 million acres and about 7,000 farms, according to the state’s agriculture department.

The Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, the state’s largest agriculture organization, said it wants to know how the state decided to target those eight watersheds and what it will mean for farmers.

“What we have seen raises several concerns,” said Joe Cornely, a farm bureau spokesman. “This is a massive undertaking. It’s going to take a lot of money, it’s going to take a lot of time. Where’s that going to come from?”

Ohio’s new approach comes just months after the Kasich administration said the steps farmers have taken aren’t working fast enough for Ohio to reach its goal of significantly reducing how much phosphorus enters the lake within the next seven years.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in March endorsed the idea of a 40 percent phosphorus reduction that had been backed previously by Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and the Canadian province of Ontario.

Research shows the largest source, by far, of phosphorus and nitrogen going into the lake comes from the Maumee River watershed in northwestern Ohio, whose land almost entirely is in farm production.

Phosphorus and nitrogen are found in livestock manure and chemical fertilizers farmers spread on fields to increase crop production.

The eight watersheds targeted by the state contribute more than twice the amount of phosphorus than the level that’s needed to reach the 40 percent reduction goal, said Ohio Environmental Protection Agency Director Craig Butler.

“We’re letting the science guide us to where and what we need to do,” he said. “Many of the other watersheds in the western Lake Erie basin are doing better so we don’t need to call them distressed.”

Farm organizations have said one of their main concerns is that there’s still uncertainty over the best approach for solving the algae problem. And there’s worry about the cost of any new regulations.

Some relief on those costs could come from legislation Kasich also signed Wednesday. It provides $20 million for farming practices that are designed to reduce fertilizer runoff.

Some information provided by The Associated Press.