by Roger Wise, President
Ronald Reagan said we must trust but verify. He was talking about the former Soviet Union and nuclear disarmament. He believed we had to trust them to do the right thing, but he was also realistic and experienced enough to know that verification was paramount to successful disarmament. That was in the 1980s.
Today the same analogy can be made regarding the “4Rs” and responsible manure and nutrient management and application. Most agree farmers want to (and usually do) embrace conscientious stewardship practices to help mitigate the effects of harmful Lake Erie algal blooms resulting from dissolved phosphorus runoff.
My perceived observation is that row crop farmers bear too much blame for the runoff problem in the Western Lake Erie basin watershed. They embrace variable rate technology, regularly soil test, and apply the right fertilizer at the right time. Cover crops are embraced more than ever, further reducing runoff and keeping nutrients incorporated where they belong. They do these practices not only because they are environmentally correct, but just as importantly because they are business people and know not doing them jeopardizes their bottom line.
Other contributing factors are part of the problem also. Liberal lawn and golf course applications, poorly maintained city sludge and water treatment facilities, and failed septic systems are on the list. Also our very productive farmland (formerly the Great Black Swamp) is systematically drained by surface (ditches) and sub-surface (tile) systems. All of these factors are part of the collective problem.
Three million people depend on the lake for drinking water and the 13 northern lake border counties realize 11.5 billion dollars in tourist and fishing economic activity annually. We simply cannot allow our lake to become distressed.
Since the last time Lake Erie was pristine (in the mid 90’s) a dramatic change in Ohio’s animal production has transpired. The model changed from family farmers raising livestock to consolidated vertically integrated confined animal feeding operations (CAFOS) in dairy, hogs and poultry. The efficacy of this model change is not for this column, but what to do about the manure is.
Unfortunately, too often these CAFOS do not have enough land on which to apply manure at required rates. Further, Mother Nature is not always cooperative, to wit, this year’s late wheat harvest due to heavy rain. Frequently, third party applicators are contracted to dispose of the manure elsewhere. There is not enough oversight of this manure after it leaves the CAFO and too often (not necessarily intentionally) it is improperly land applied. This “hand off” of the application responsibility exacerbates the problem and is dubbed the “manure loophole.”
Currently, the draft version of Senate Bill 150 does not adequately deal with this loophole. As the old saying goes, “the chain is only as strong as its weakest link.” Until the land application issue is responsibly addressed, the problem will persist.
ODNR Director Jim Zehringer said recently on Toledo TV, (Sunday Morning 13 Roundtable) that it is time to stop pointing fingers and to start solving the problem. Everyone agrees with this sentiment, but until all aspects of the problem are acknowledged, our public waters will continue to be at risk.
This piece originally ran in the Ohio Country Messenger, the bi-monthly newsletter of the Ohio Farmers Union. The Ohio Country Messenger is a benefit of Ohio Farmers Union membership.