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How Ohio farmers are trying to shrink Lake Erie toxic algal blooms

By James F. McCarty • Jun 15, 2017 at 8:00 AM

FINDLAY — Farmers in Northwest Ohio realize that runoff from their fields feeds the giant toxic algal blooms that grow in Lake Erie's western basin each summer, and that they share responsibility for reducing the annual outbreak.

Many are attacking the problem using innovations in farm machinery, enhanced soil conservation practices and a return to some old-fashioned organic farming methods.

Their objective is to reduce the amount of phosphorus that flows from their fertilizer and manure into creeks and drainage ditches, and eventually into the Maumee River. From there it empties into the lake, forming a toxic pea soup that closes beaches, spoils vacations, scatters schools of walleye to cleaner regions, and threatens drinking water with toxic bacteria.

The 2015 algal bloom was the largest ever. Last year's bloom was the smallest in nearly a decade, but the farmers aren't taking credit for that.

"We like to think last year's bloom was influenced by what we're doing here," said Bill Kellogg, who with his son Shane has been implementing conservation practices for more than a decade on their 5,000-acre corn and soybean farm in Hardin County. "But the reality is the major reason for the small bloom was that we didn't have any major rain events."

The Kellogg farm is one of three demonstration farms in the Blanchard River watershed employing agricultural renovations to reduce nutrient runoff. Their successes and failures will be shared with local farmers and land management agencies.

The demonstration farms are part of a $1 million, five-year project, and the centerpiece of the Ohio Farm Bureau's Water Quality Action Plan. The program encourages farmers to voluntarily adhere to the Four Rs: use the Right nutrients on their fields, at the Right rate, and at the Right time of the planting season, in the Right location.

The Kelloggs already have seen healthy returns on a $177,000 purchase of a sub-surface cultivator, which places fertilizer 3 to 8 inches below the soil. An on-board computer determines the exact amount of fertilizer needed in each row. The high-tech machine has cut $100,000 from the Kelloggs' annual $300,000 fertilizer bill.

"If you can keep the dirt on the field the fertilizer stays there, too," Shane Kellogg said.

"We want to try to prove to the other farmers and people in larger cities that we're out here and we're trying to fix this thing," he said. "We want to help the problem, not be a part of it."

Duane and Anthony Stateler of Hancock County have different issues to deal with at their demonstration farm where they raise 7,000 hogs from the nursery to the slaughterhouse. It's a 156-day process, during which the piglets gain more than 270 pounds and produce more than 2 million gallons of manure per year.

The Statelers' manure-treatment system is decidedly low-tech, but environmentally friendly. The pigs' waste products flow through grates in their pens into a 10-foot deep pit. When the pit is filled, the Statelers stir it and flush it into giant manure tanks for application in the fields via their subsurface tiller.

"We have farmers banging on our doors begging for our manure," said Anthony Stateler. "It's 40 percent cheaper than commercial fertilizer, and with its nutrient value it's the best organic fertilizer source out there."

Last week, U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, Republican from Ohio, visited Chris Kurt's 470-acre demonstration farm in Hardin County, where he grows corn and soybeans and employs conservation techniques such as a phosphorus filtration bed pilot project. Water from a field flows through an underground pit containing steel slag, which removes the phosphorus before the cleansed water flows into a drainage ditch.

Portman praised Kurt's farming methods as evidence of the value of investments from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which has been targeted for elimination as part of the Trump budget cuts.

"The Blanchard River Demonstration Farms Network is a great example of how GLRI funds are being used to improve water quality in the region while supporting sustainable farming practices," Portman said.

"The project I saw firsthand uses cutting-edge conservation practices to improve water quality, and it is incredibly important to the Blanchard River Watershed and the Great Lakes," Portman said.

Over the next few weeks, Chad Penn, a soil research scientist with the USDA's Agricultural Research Service, will oversee the installation of a larger phosphorus filtration bed on the Kurt farm to handle runoff from a 20-acre field. The bed is being financed with a $190,000 grant from the Great Lakes Commission.

Two Ohio laws also contribute to the ongoing battle against phosphorus runoff. Senate Bill 150 requires certification of every farmer who applies fertilizer to more than 50 acres of fields. Senate Bill 1 restricts fertilizer and manure distribution in the western basin on snow-covered, frozen or saturated fields, or when rain is predicted for the following day.

"There is not a farmer out there who wants to be a part of the problem," said Doug Deardorff of the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Findlay.

"Fertilizers and manure are expensive, and they [farmers] want to make sure they stay on their property. They certainly don't want to see them flushed down the streams to become part of an environmental problem," Deardorff said. "But there's always room for improvement."

Some of the soil conservation practices being used on the demonstration farms include:

* Planting cover crops such as winter rye, alfalfa and other native plants that blanket the fields during winter and are plowed back into the soil in spring as "green manure." They help to curb erosion and weeds, and add nutrients to the soil;

* Planting conservation cover such as buffer strips of native grasses, wildflowers and trees to help filter phosphorus and reduce soil erosion, as well as to provide food for pollinators;

* Sub-surface placement of fertilizer and manure with specialized equipment that manages flow rate and helps to avoid soil surface runoff;

* Burying phosphorus filtration beds beneath the soil surface to capture phosphorus and discharge clean water into drainage ditches;

* No-till farming, another old-fashioned technique, in which the tops of the corn or other crops are harvested, and the roots remain in the soil. This practice educes erosion, adds organic matter to the soil, and improves water quality by filtration;

* Building two-stage ditches in the fields that include vegetative benches that mimic natural channels, help to remove phosphorus, reduce turbidity and prevent stream bank erosion.

Cover crops are an old organic farming practice that had fallen out of favor except among traditional Amish farmers. But they're gaining favor again in the Blanchard River watershed, Bill Kellogg said.

"The number of cover crops in Hardin County is unbelievable," Kellogg said. "Things are being done differently around here. Even non-farmers are stopping by asking, 'What are you planting in that field that doesn't look like soybeans?' "

The Kelloggs credit cover crops with improving their soybean yields by more than three bushels an acre. And they're proud of their wildflower beds, too, which are helping the pollinators.

"I spent my entire career trying to eliminate milkweed, and now I'm planting it for the butterflies and the bees," said Bill Kellogg.

The new and resurrected soil and water conservation techniques on the demonstration farms are having an impact in the Western Lake Erie Basin, where 99 percent of the acreage is being managed with at least one conservation practice, said Joe Cornely of the Ohio Farm Bureau.

But conservationists and Lake Erie advocates say voluntary conservation programs aren't enough. Studies have shown that about 85 percent of the phosphorus entering Lake Erie comes from farm fertilizers and manure in the Maumee River.

"I know there are farmers out there doing good things, and they should be applauded," said Kristy Meyer, managing director of Natural Resources at the Ohio Environmental Council.

"But they're not doing it on the scale necessary to make a significant difference in the water quality being discharged into Lake Erie. They need to do much more."

Ohio needs common sense regulations, Meyer said. Too many farmers run their fields the way their families have run them for generations, without applying smart conservation practices, she said.

That opinion doesn't go over well in Hardin and Hancock counties, however.

"We do realize that agriculture is part of the problem, but we don't want people coming in here telling us what we can and cannot do, threatening us with more regulations," said Bill Kellogg.

The reality is that more than anything the alga bloom is impacted by the weather: spring and early summer rainfall.

"Give us control of the weather and we'll end this thing in no time," Bill Kellogg said.

Recently, the Kellogg farm received 7.4 inches of rain over a three-week period, which doesn't bode well for the bloom of 2017, he said.

Early projections by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration called for another below-average-size algal bloom, based on a relatively dry March and April. But an extremely wet May has discharged a substantial load of phosphorus into the Maumee River and made the initial projection less reliable and a large bloom more likely, said NOAA forecaster Rick Stumpf.

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