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Farmers condemn unilateral regulatory action by Ohio governor

Credit: Photo by Jordan Angle, courtesy of The Ohio State University. Lake Erie wetland (Old Woman Creek National Estuarine Research Reserve),
Ohio governor executive order could regulate 2 million farmland acres to help protect Lake Erie.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich raised deep concern among Ohio agricultural groups in his recent Executive Order 2018-09K, titled “Taking Steps to Protect Lake Erie.” The new executive order calls on the Ohio Department of Agriculture to consider declaring watersheds in the Maumee River Basin as watersheds in distress, due to “increased nutrient levels resulting from phosphorus attached to soil sediment.”

If the proposed watersheds are declared in distress, the order then directs the ODA, Ohio Department of Natural Resources and Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to recommend a rule package for the distressed watersheds. The rule package would include: setting nutrient management requirements for all nutrient sources; development of nutrient management plans for agricultural land and operations within the watershed boundaries; and setting requirements for the storage and handling of farm products.

“With no conversation with Ohio's agriculture community, the Kasich executive order would include regulation of over 2 million acres in northwest Ohio,” the Ohio Farm Bureau said in a statement. They added the executive order “ignores the transparent and inclusive approach to the regulatory process Kasich promised with his Common Sense Initiative.”

“Because the agricultural community was not included in the process, farmers are left with frustration, questions and uncertainty on both the process and implications of this order,” Ohio Farm Bureau said.

The Ohio Corn & Wheat Growers Assn. (OCWGA) and the Ohio Soybean Assn. (OSA) also said they were not consulted on Kasich’s plans. In a statement the groups stated, “After failing to convince even a single member of the Ohio General Assembly to support its legislative proposal to implement burdensome and unnecessary fertilizer requirements, the administration announced it would ignore the will of the legislature and take unprecedented power and control over how farmers farm.”

“Although Gov. Kasich has worked productively with our farmers in the past, the administration is now acting without our input,” said OSA executive director Kirk Merritt. “Farmers are willing to do what needs to be done to solve this problem, but now we’re not even being invited to the table.”

The Farm Bureau, OCWGA and OSA said they are strong supporters of Ohio Senate Bill 299 and Ohio House Bill 643, bipartisan legislation signed July 11 (the same day as Kasich announced his executive order) that will invest significant new resources to protect water quality throughout the state. Initially, the administration unsuccessfully lobbied the sponsors of those bills to include onerous regulatory measures in their respective proposals. It provides funding of up to $20 million in a targeted phosphorus reduction fund, $3.5 million to support soil testing and the development of nutrient management plans, among other provisions, recognizing the complex needs of farmers in the process.

After being rebuffed by the legislature, the administration announced it would forgo the checks and balances provided by the legislature and pursue an executive order.

The Ohio Farm Bureau said Kasich’s order has no realistic recognition of the time nor the financial or educational resources required for farmers to comply. 

“Regulations created under the order may conflict with multiple layers of existing regulation. There are also significant concerns about the science applied, the processes through which the order will be enacted and the specific authorities of the multiple state agencies charged with carrying out the order,” OFB said.

Adam Sharp, executive vice president of Ohio Farm Bureau, said Farm Bureau will take the rare step of filing a formal public records request in order to gain clarity on some of these issues.

“We’re also curious why the order deals with only agriculture and not other pieces of the water puzzle, especially since the administration has prioritized other water quality initiatives instead of farm conservation programs,” Sharp said.    

The Kasich administration said it has invested more than $3 billion to improve Lake Erie water quality.  But an examination of the expenditures, reported by Cleveland Public Broadcasting station WCPN, found that only 1% of that money was used to address agriculture’s portion of the water quality challenge.

“If we weren’t a priority for state resources, why are we a priority for state regulation?” Sharp asked.

Over the past six months, the Ohio AgriBusiness Association has been fully engaged on this issue. Although an executive order was not the desired outcome, OABA said the industry can take two wins in the situation: 1) Fertilizer wasn’t declared or defined a pollutant in Ohio law. 2) Much of the order requires the normal, traditional rulemaking process with stakeholder input – which is what we’ve pushed so hard for over the last few months.

“OABA is concerned for the impact this executive order will have on farmers and agribusinesses in these watersheds and we are committed to remaining engaged throughout the rulemaking process. We welcome the opportunity to share science-based solutions with our regulators with the goal of continued improvement in the Western Lake Erie Basin,” OABA said in a notice to its members.



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