Tackling Water Quality Challenges

Farmers, Fertilizer Companies, Groups Working to Address Water Quality Issues

Russ Quinn
By  Russ Quinn , DTN Staff Reporter
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Having better access to farmers' data might help researchers find new ways to limit fertilizer runoff, according to a research leader and ag engineer for the USDA Agriculture Research Service. (DTN file photo by Chris Clayton)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (DTN) -- All stakeholders need to be involved and work together to tackle water quality challenges, speakers at a roundtable discussion here at the 2018 Fertilizer Outlook and Technology Conference said on Wednesday.

While there are no easy solutions to water quality issues, the speakers said, there are several different ways to approach the daunting subject.

The discussion focused on the Western Lake Erie Basin (WLEB) and the toxic algae blooms, which shut down the water source to the city of Toledo in the summer of 2014. Since that year, several groups in northwest Ohio have worked together to limit the factors that form the toxic algae.

TOUGH BATTLE

Despite the work of various partnerships, the situation has certainly not been an easy one to navigate at all times, said Jeff Blair, president of plant nutrition for The Andersons Inc. The blooms didn't just happen in 2014, and they will be an ongoing issue, he said.

Blair said various groups in the region, wanting to act on their own on the algae issue, could not convince Ohio Gov. John Kasich to meet with them. Instead, the Republican governor allocated $3 billion to improve water works and various other projects in the area, he said.

It was frustrating not to be heard by the governor, Blair said. As a fertilizer retailer, The Andersons is on the front lines in attempting to ensure fertilizer is applied correctly and that runoff into Lake Erie is limited, he said. The algae is caused from high levels of phosphorus in the lake.

Among the practices The Andersons are advocating is the 4R program: the right source, at the right rate, at the right time and at the right place.

"There is a spectrum of the 4Rs, and we have to help farmers build up speed in this process," Blair said.

Blair admitted not many of his farmer customers are utilizing the system currently. Farmers are struggling with trying to make a profit, and a program like the 4Rs is not a priority, he said.

Retailers have to be the first group to work on implementing the system, show farmers they can remain profitable and make sure the environment is safe from fertilizer runoff, he said. Retailers need to show their services, as well as their products, are valuable.

"We need to change our model, and we can't just be giving away services just to get customers," Blair said. "They will spend the same amount of money with us, but the services will be more important going forward."

FARMERS LEADING NEW WAYS

David Myerholtz, a corn and soybean farmer from Gibsonburg, Ohio, is already implementing the 4R system on his farm. He said he can see people enjoying Lake Erie from the front porch of his farmhouse.

Myerholtz said he has adopted several environmental stewardship programs on his farm, considering how close his land is to the lake. Along with the 4Rs, he also utilizes cover crops, soil and tissue testing, and subsurface application of phosphorus to assure there is no runoff into water sources.

"It is all economically driven," Myerholtz said. "We were tired of putting too much nutrients on the surface and then losing money when the fertilizer runoff."

While his nutrient management may not be perfect, he said he is doing a better job applying fertilizer on his northwest Ohio farm. He works with a crop consultant as well as his fertilizer retailer, The Andersons, to assure he is applying fertilizer in an efficient way while protecting nearby water sources.

SHARING DATA

While the partnership between all parties involved in the Western Lake Erie Basin is strong, there are aspects that could improve the situation.

Kevin King, a research leader and ag engineer for USDA Agriculture Research Service (ARS) located in Columbus, Ohio, said he would like to see researchers have the ability to access farmers' data in the region. He understands why farmers are protective of their data, as there is no protection for individual farmers' data, but still seeing farmers' data in the basin might help researchers find new ways to limit fertilizer runoff.

King is working with 20 farmers in the WLEB, but this research only presents part of the overall picture. Having even more data would be invaluable, he said.

"This wouldn't be individual data, but more in terms of data in different ZIP codes," King said.

King said there has been some research into how people think about drainage. One interesting idea is, with heavier and more frequent rainfalls, to take 5% to 10% of land out of production and build water storage structures, he said. Farmers could then utilize the accumulated water for irrigation purposes later in the growing season.

However, ideas such as this are a hard sell to many farmers, as they create an environmental benefit that has no economic advantage. Agronomic changes that increase yield are an obvious benefit, while taking land out of production for the benefit of the environment is less obvious, he said.

NON-AG GROUPS

Not all groups involved in the WLEB are agricultural, according to Amy Brennan, Lake Erie conservation director for The Nature Conservancy. Brennan's group works with a suite of partners to protect land in northwestern Ohio.

Brennan said her group works together in both public and private partnerships to advance the implementation of new technologies with fertilizer. This could be both in terms of product and application advancements, she said.

In addition, The Nature Conservancy also wants to engage those involved in the supply chain with the fertilizer industry.

Their plan is to monitor the application of nutrients and the water nearby. They also will continue to engage with both old and new partners and help align policies, science and funding.

"We want to keep the dialogue on this subject going," Brennan said. "There are lots of changes which have already occurred, and more coming in the future."

Russ Quinn can be reached at russ.quinn@dtn.com

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Russ Quinn