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Farmers make progress in improving water quality, but much work remains

Patrick Cooley, The Columbus Dispatch on

Published in Business News

Phosphorus lingers in soil for years, said Dr. John Senko, a professor of geosciences and biology at the University of Akron

"Even if you cut it off all at once, the mass of phosphate remains a threat," he said.

If the presence of algae blooms is the yardstick with which to measure progress, the situation remains dire, said Dr. Thomas Bridgeman, director of the Lake Erie Center at the University of Toledo.

"There is no sign that the blooms have been decreasing in any systematic manner," he said.

Although the fact that those blooms aren't getting worse might be itself a measure of progress.

"The problem was getting worse and worse and worse throughout the 2000s, and it looks like it may have leveled out," Bridgeman said. But he added, "The concentrations of phosphorus are still far too high."

And individual farms don't need to lose much phosphorus to contribute to the problem, said Sandra Kosek-Sills, an environmental specialist for the Lake Erie Commission.

"Each farmer from each field may only be losing a jar full of phosphorus," she said. "That's negligible from a farmer's point of view. They're not losing anything. But that teeny tiny amount can make a big difference when concentrated in the lake."

Although some researchers are heartened by the apparent dip in phosphorus levels even as they encourage farmers to do more.

"We do think we are headed in the right direction," Lake Erie Commission Director Joy Mulinex said.

 

Meanwhile, farmers continue to experiment with sustainable farming. The trick is figuring out which tactics work.

Kenton farmer Paul Ralston uses cover crops, which help fields retain nutrients by holding the soil in place. The grower alternates between corn and soybeans, and wants to know which cover crops are most adept at retaining nutrients between growing seasons.

"I haven't found the perfect combination there yet," he said.

Millennial farmers love using technology and are open to new farming techniques, but many older growers are set in their ways and need a bit more coaxing, Yoder said.

The Plain City farmer finds making a financial case is the best way to bring reluctant farmers off the fence.

"One of the first things farmers think of is how much is this going to cost to change my ways," he said. "People just assume if you change, you have to invest in new equipment, and there's going to be an indebted cost, but that's not necessarily true."

Ralston embodies many of the attitudes Yoder wants to instill in Ohio's farming community. Any fertilizer that leaves his field is wasted money in his eyes.

"I invested a lot to just let it float down the river," he said. "Anything we can do to save it, that's what we're doing."

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