Farmers must take a proactive approach 2016.03.02

Written by David Green. Posted in Feature Stories

By DAVID GREEN

Lake Erie's algal bloom problem is multifaceted, Ohio State Sen. Randy Gardner (R-Bowling Green) told members of the agriculture community, but farmers need to respond as proactively as possible.p.gardner.randy

Gardner spoke Feb. 19 at the Fayette Opera House for the Community Development Corporation of Fayette's annual Agriculture Appreciation Brunch.

Gardner said the state government provided $3 million in 2012 to bolster conservation practices in the Western Lake Erie Basin. The measure was based on the conclusions of a task force established by Gov. John Kasich, although the governor did not support the action.

There are many approaches to keeping fertilizer in the soil, Gardner said, and he thinks the State should be a partner in helping to establish a clean water bond issue to fund practices.

"The governor isn't excited about it yet, to put it mildly," he said.

Gardner would like to see all property enrolled in conservation programs taken off the tax rolls to offer more incentive.

Gardner and former Ohio Farm Bureau president Bob Peterson were co-sponsors of Senate Bill 1, the Agricultural Pollution Abatement Program that passed unanimously last year. 

"We tried to engage the agricultural community to get the right balance," Gardner said.

Among other directives, the bill forbids the application of manure onto frozen ground and before predicted rain events. Gardner disagrees with critics who claim that the bill largely exempts CAFOs.

Gardner said he often hears from people in agriculture complaining that farmers are the only ones to be blamed when discussing Lake Erie problems, but there are other factors including municipal storm water and waste water systems, sewer overflow issues and septic issues. The problem also includes sources from Michigan and Indiana, he said.

"But the thing that has been most prominent is the historic higher rainfall," Gardner said. "Over the last 20 years, we've had about a 57 percent increase in large rainfall events."

It's one thing to have manure wash off a field and through drainage tile from a heavy rain that wasn't expected. That's a consequence of nature, he said. But to apply manure onto a field before a predicted storm is another matter.

"That's on you," he told the audience.

"It's not managing nutrients, but also managing water," Gardner said, "so we have to figure out additional ways to help agriculture manage the volume of water. I think we have an obligation to work with you. In some areas, it's just a difficult hazard of producing food."

Gardner said he would gladly listen to ideas from farmers.

An audience member said that farmers have taken some responsibility and there are indications of improved water quality.

"When are we going to see an article that says the Detroit River contributed to it or the City of Toledo?" asked an audience member. "When are we going to see them held accountable?"

"That's a fair question," Gardner said. "First of all, municipalities have actually done quite a lot in recent years."

Toledo residents paid for a $521 million wastewater initiative. Fayette recently completed a staged project to eliminate combined sewer overflows that send raw sewage into the Lake Erie watershed. 

Sewer overflows account for about eight percent of Lake Erie's phosphorus, Gardner said—an important factor, but not a high percentage.

"I would say in fairness to cities, an awful lot of money has been spent and mostly by residents of those communities," Gardner said.

He acknowledged that the Detroit River is a contributor, however, he said, it produces a very large water flow and is quite diluted. That can't be said for the Maumee River.

"Many of you have participated in plans to try to make a difference," he said. "I'm sometimes asked why would we provide money for people who are part of the problem. I don't necessarily care who is part of what problem. If we can make a difference, I'll support anyone."

Many problems exist in the area, he said.

"There are eco-sensitive areas of Fulton and Lucas counties that present big challenges. There's an area of my district with 100 percent septic failure rate. Many retired people live there. Should they be told to put in new sewer systems? It's a tough issue. There are really big challenges."

An audience member pointed out the problem of residential lawn chemicals applied by people who lack the knowledge of proper use. Gardner responded by saying that it's difficult to buy residential fertilizer in Ohio that contains phosphorus.

Media coverage mentions nothing but agriculture as a source of pollution, an audience member said.

"Who decides what news gets out to the media? Isn't there a PR department that decides what gets out?" he was asked. "There should be a positive spin on agriculture. Articles should be written saying there are positive things going on in your community and make that the norm rather than let the media pick what they want to focus on."

The agricultural community will argue against studies that assign phosphorus inputs, Gardner said. For example, the International Joint Commission estimates that 60 percent of Great Lakes phosphorus comes from agricultural sources.

"You just have to try to be as proactive as possible," he said. "The one thing that I think agriculture understands is that if Ohio doesn't deal a little more effectively with the issue, some day the federal government is going to come in and tell you how to farm."

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