On Nov. 14, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine outlined his framework for the use of H2Ohio funds to improve Ohio’s water quality. The Ohio Agriculture Conservation Initiative (OACI) brought together members from the agriculture, environmental, conservation and research sectors and will serve as an integral partner in this initiative.
OACI has been working diligently throughout 2019 to develop a benchmark of agricultural best practices and create a framework for voluntary certification of Ohio’s farms, all to support healthy waterways in the state.
OACI will work with the H2Ohio program, which will ensure that funds are distributed to farmers who demonstrate a commitment to continuous improvement through implementation of science-based practices that contribute to healthier waterways. In working with the research community, H2Ohio also will establish a baseline understanding of current conservation and nutrient management efforts while building farmer participation in the new voluntary certification program.
Heather Taylor-Miesle, executive director of the Ohio Environmental Council and co-chair of OACI, is optimistic about the collaborative efforts that have brought together what she called “strange bedfellows” in the quest to improve water quality in the state of Ohio. “Progress is progress, and this is big progress,” she said, adding that it relies heavily on the partnership between those in the farming and conservation communities moving the needle on improving water quality and reducing runoff from agricultural operations.
She said this issue too often is about “war and fraction,” but this instead focused work collaboratively in a way that is healthy for the environment and offers a healthy farm economy. “While there is no silver bullet, we believe this unprecedented partnership will bring meaningful change to Ohio’s water quality over time,” she said.
Scott Higgins, co-chair of OACI and chief executive officer of the Ohio Dairy Producers Assn., said the funds offered under H2Ohio can help farmers implement things they may like to do but have not had the resources to do so. The certification component of the program also allows farmers who want to do the right thing to request funding to implement some of those science-proven best management practices. Then, the program can assess, measure and report back in aggregated form just how farmers are moving the needle on phosphorus movement and keeping those nutrients in the field.
This initiative will begin in the Maumee watershed. “There are approximately 75,000 farmers in the state of Ohio, with about 17,000 farmers located in the Western Lake Erie Basin,” Higgins said.
He added that the new program is not “one size fits all” but, rather, is customized to each farm, the nature of the farm, the location and access to waterways. It then aligns financial support with the practices farmers deem most effective. Producers' information will remain confidential, but being able to access what works is important for establishing and communicating the role agriculture plays in water quality in the region.
“The support for implementation of on-farm conservation and nutrient management practices that are unique to each farm makes this initiative different from any other. We believe the partnership with H2Ohio will increase the participation by our farmers,” Higgins said.
In early 2020, OACI will launch a mobile app for farmers in the Maumee watershed to self-report information about their farm’s soil testing, nutrient application, nutrient placement, on-field management and structural practices, including the number of acres in each category. Participants will be given a score for each category and an aggregated overall score to determine their certification level.
Those not meeting the minimum criteria for certification will be given tools to create an action plan to become certified and will be eligible for H2Ohio funds to support their work.
For farmers earning certification, on a whole farm level, H2Ohio funds will be available for continuous improvement in the implementation of conservation and nutrient management practices.
The certification program will be administered by the Ohio Federation of Soil & Water Conservation Districts. There will be an independent audit of certification requests.
To measure the progress of the certification program, OACI will establish a baseline of current conservation and nutrient management practices taking place on Ohio’s farm fields. This data will be used -- in aggregate to maintain confidentiality -- as a measurement of the continuous implementation of science-based best management practices.
OACI was created as an innovative, collaborative effort of the agricultural, conservation, environmental and research communities to improve water quality. For more information, visit www.OhioACI.org.