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Farmers Rethink Practices to Solve Algae Blooms

Fearing regulation, Ohio farmers gather to share insights into fertilizer application near Lake Erie.

Ohio farmers are being challenged to rethink some of their farming practices and hold each other accountable in order to reduce phosphorus levels in fields, which have been found to be a leading cause of toxic algae blooms in Lake Erie and across northwest Ohio.

Crop consultants Rick Barnes and Alison Adams along with Eric Barnes, owner of Farmers Alliance, felt a strong need to get all the stakeholders together this week in the area of northwest Ohio to understand the issue and encourage adoption of better farming methods.

“Last month the ground was frozen, there was snow on the ground, and everybody was spreading fertilizer and manure,” Barnes said. “A few days later it rained 3 inches. I was frustrated and thought we needed to communicate that there are other ways to do this, to ensure nutrients don’t end up in Lake Erie.”

The issue has been at the forefront since 2014, when the algae blooms were so toxic that the city of Toledo had to shut off its water supply. In February, Toledo voters passed the Lake Erie “Bill of Rights,” which gives citizens the right to file a lawsuit on the lake’s behalf against any business – including farmers – in the Lake Erie watershed.

Farmers are fearful of what regulations may be coming.

“I fear that we will not be able to make decisions on our own, we’ll be forced into things from people totally unrelated to agriculture, and it might not be a best management practice or economical,” Ben Bowsher, a Harrod, Ohio, farmer said.

At the gathering this week, Dr. Chris Winslow, director of the Ohio State University Stone Laboratory and a leading research authority on the algae blooms, emphasized that there is no silver bullet to solve algae blooms.

“What I’m worried about is that 42% of fields are providing 78% of the phosphorus. You cannot draw that phosphorus down overnight,” Winslow said to the more than 100 people in the crowd in a Farmers Alliance building.

Pinpointing where the high levels of phosphorus are takes collaboration. Researchers have identified the subwatersheds that are at three times the recommended phosphorus levels.

“The problem is it doesn’t mean that every acre within the watershed is high in phosphorus. That helps us narrow it down, but when you are in that area, not every farm is the same,” Winslow said.

For example, there could be a 300-acre field that decades ago was a small livestock farm and manure was applied in the field not far from the barn. So, only 2 acres are above the Tri State Fertilizer recommendation level. If water runs right through those 2 acres, it could be a source of the problem.

“You don’t have to do all the management on all your acres. The key is knowing where your hot spots are and managing the water going through them,” Winslow said.

When it comes to best practices, farmers can control their annual contribution of phosphorus by utilizing the 4 Rs; the right fertilizer source at the right rate, at the right time and in the right place.

“When I started years ago, it was recommended to put on as much fertilizer as you could, so when times were tough you could bank on that. That is no longer the case at all,” Barnes said. “Often I find farmers don’t know enough about proper application rates. Then there are suppliers who want to get their job done, so they get talked into doing improper methods.”

OhioPhosphorus
Source: Beck's Hybrids

Soil testing is crucial.

Aaron Heilers, of the Blanchard Valley River Demonstration Farm Network, says that the soil testing method used makes a difference. The network consists of three farms testing the effectiveness of conservation practices and monitoring the economics.

After the meeting, Bowsher said, “We’ve been doing soil sampling for years, but one thing we’ll probably tweak this year is going to 1-acre grids instead of 2.5.”

One key is to avoid applications when rain is in the forecast. The farms in the Blanchard Valley Demonstration group measured both surface runoff and subsurface drainage. While phosphorus discharges through tile over time, there is actually more lost though surface drainage after a heavy rain, they found.

“We still broadcast our fertilizer, but now we’re really careful to make sure we get it incorporated well before a rain to hold that fertilizer where it needs to be,” Cam Aller, of WWA Farms of St. Marys, said.

OhioSoilTest
Source: Blanchard River Valley Demonstration Farm Network
Winslow knows there are barriers to farmer adoption of these practices: such as cost, the time window available for application, and the ability to appropriately implement the practices with the resources farmers have. He admits that the academics need to meet the reality on the farm.

The situation is now to a point where it’s time to hold each other accountable, he says.

“As farmers we need to fix this problem and be proactive. On our farm we try to be proactive, yet we see some things our neighbors are doing and we’d like to see them get on board,” Aller said.

“I want farmers to see they don’t have to be forced into this. We can’t solve the whole water quality issue in a day, but we can also not add to it,” Barnes said.

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