This is part two of a three-part series. Catch part one here: Water quality on the farm: Staying ahead of the regulatory curve and part three here: Water quality on the farm: An Ohio watershed lesson
When it comes to protecting water, the bureaucracy it would take to enforce regulations would be a significant expense for taxpayers. In Iowa, an estimated 400,000 to 500,000 farms would require nutrient management plans, and the paper pushing and oversight would be significant in powerhouse Ag states.
By comparison, in states such as Maryland with only 400,000 acres total cropland and more taxpayers, it becomes easier to share the burden of paying for environmental incentives.
For any farmer, the key is making sure any regulation is workable while still achieving attainable goals.
In Ohio, the call for regulations has heated up after algae blooms caused the northern city of Toledo to go without water for 56 hours last August.
Even before Toledo, Ohio agricultural groups had begun working together with environmental and industry groups to address water quality. The Ohio Farm Bureau has encouraged its members to be certified for fertilizer nutrient application, says Adam Sharp, OFB vice president of public policy.
"Farm Bureau policy says we expect farmers in the state of Ohio to get trained on the 4Rs," says Sharp, referring to "right source, right rate, right time and right place" practices.
Legislation now requires farmers across the state, including in the Lake Erie basin, to obtain certification, and Nearly 800 farmers attended the first three training sessions, with more continuing throughout the spring.
Sharp says as the state moved legislation forward, the Farm Bureau became engaged. In the end, they supported the legislation because fertilizer certification is something that is workable and builds farmers' accountability with consumers.
In 2014, a legislative attempt was made to codify the state's Natural Resources Nutrient Management Standards guidance (also known as Code 590) into law, which would require farmers to avoid applying nutrients on frozen, snow-covered ground or within a 24-hour period if there's more than a 50% chance of at least a half-inch of rain.
Sharp says as the discussion for what may end up in legislation this year unfolds, it will be important to make sure any specifications on when nutrients can and can't be applied are workable for farmers.
Many of the suggested tactics to curb phosphorus runoff on farms would ban specific practices. While some of the suggestions are rooted in common sense, the experience of farmers in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia suggests that Ohio and the rest of the Corn Belt should be cautious.
"The science and equipment in agriculture are constantly changing to address farmer's production needs," says Tommie Price, Ohio Soybean Association president. "OSA recommends taking a conservative approach by including a provision that new laws changing agricultural practices expire after five years. At that time, the Legislature could hold hearings to see if the proposed laws are still needed."
Expense on society
Regulations are only as good as the government's ability to enforce them. The best scenario, says Tom Menke, a Greenville, Ohio, soil consultant who has worked with farmers in the watershed near Grand Lake St. Mary's, is for voluntary compliance, with the threat of penalties from random checks to ensure farm records are in order.
But Menke believes nutrient management is important everywhere — regulations or no regulations.
Related: Conservation can be profitable, too
"When I started 38 years ago, it was about making economic sense," he says. "I would see what some retailers were recommending for farmers to apply to fields, and I thought it was an economic crime; now it's becoming an environmental crime as well. If you're out there recommending nutrients that aren't needed, that puts excess nutrient in the environment to migrate away from the farm — whether it's nitrate leaching or phosphorus runoff.
"When a nutrient leaves the farm, it's literally money down the drain," he says. "It's not only an expense to farmers, it's an expense to society in the cleanup and potential threat to drinking water."