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Tuesday, July 13th, 2010

Farmers told to 'step up'

Officials want 100 percent compliance in one year

By Shelley Grieshop

A crowd of people - mostly farmers - listen as various speakers discuss farmers. . .

GRAND LAKE - Local farmers must follow good environmental practices to escape the spotlight created by the problems of Grand Lake and possible intervention by the government.
That was the message approximately 300 area farmers heard from local, state and federal officials Monday night during an informational meeting at the Knights of St. John hall in Maria Stein.
"We're here to talk about what it's going to take to get you and your families out of the crosshairs," said Mercer County Farm Service Agency Executive Director Chris Gibbs, who organized the meeting.
The issue of the polluted lake - its toxic blue-green algae and horrible smell - has made national headlines, several speakers told the crowd.
"Columbus called every day last week," said Jim Will, a district conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service. "They said Washington wanted to know what's going on in the Grand Lake Watershed."
Will hinted that if farmers don't take the initiative to implement their own sound environmental practices, the government might decide to mandate action just for this watershed region.
Larry Antosch, director of policy development and environmental research for the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, said the most important thing farmers can do is adopt comprehensive nutrient and manure management plans to stop the flow of chemicals, like phosphorus, from entering the lake and feeding the blue-green algae.
"Our members would rather see a voluntary, science-based, economically sound and flexible plan" instead of a "cookie-cutter" program set up by the government that all farmers must follow, he said.
"One size fits all doesn't hit everyone the same way," he continued.
Stopping the flow of nutrients into the lake is half the problem; cleaning up the affects of decades of bad farming practices will be the other, Gibbs and others said.
Men and women alike filled the sprawling hall where country-style weddings are celebrated most weekends. The scene Monday night, however, was much more somber. Speaker after speaker explained how generations of farmers contributed to the lake's current problem. Each of the nearly 300 farming operations in the lake watershed must become good environmental stewards, Gibbs said.
Some progress has been made, he said. Since enacting a lake watershed plan in November, 60 producers have voluntarily sought assistance for nutrient management plans and/or have implemented filter strips and buffers, he said.
"And that's great," Gibbs said, adding the response has kept the Farm Service Agency quite busy.
Also leading the meeting was Ohio Rep. Jim Zehringer of Fort Recovery, who voiced his concern and disappointment over the brewing issue.
"We've gone from Memorial Day with the cleanest lake anyone has seen for years to a disaster on the Fourth of July," he said.
Zehringer noted that 80 percent of the occupants in the lake watershed are farmers so there's no use pointing fingers at other sources.
"I don't want to waste time talking about geese, lawn fertilizer, the channels," he said. "Sixty of you have signed up for management plans and I guess the rest of you don't care." [Correction: State Rep. Jim Zehringer said one of his quotes in the story was taken out of context. He said "the perception" of the public is that some farmers don't care enough about the lake's water quality to implement nutrient management plans.]
He warned farmers to step up to the plate, do the right thing and get out from under the blame.
"We have to take agriculture out of the equation," he said.
Brian Miller, assistant manager of the Grand Lake St. Marys State Park, highlighted events that led up to the discovery several weeks ago of new toxins in the algae that can cause liver and nerve damage. The fall-out has caused low attendance rates at the state park, he said. Last week - during the peak of the summer camping season - only 25 of 204 camp sites were rented, he said.
Miller said he grew up on the lake and is shocked by what's happening.
"I never thought this day would come," he said. "Last weekend there were no more than a half dozen boats on the lake at any given time."
Dr. Robert Hiskey, a professor at Wright State University-Lake Campus in Celina, said the type of algae blooms spotted in the lake a few weeks ago took him by surprise. He first eyed the species when it stuck to the boat he was riding in during a routine outing.
"I thought, 'Oh crap, this isn't what we want to see,' " he recalled.
He believes the new algae variety could be the result of a "perfect storm" - the right amount of spring rain followed by hot temperatures and humidity. Its progression, at this point, is unpredictable, Hiskey said.
"It needs nutrients (to grow) and I can tell you there are plenty of nutrients here," he told the farmers.
Hiskey labeled the lake water "hypereutropohic," based on extremely high phosphorus content from nutrients placed on farm fields. Recent water quality tests from the center of the lake registered 10 times higher than the eutrophic level, he said.
Officials also discussed how long it could take to clean up the lake if agriculture run-off is halted and clean-up measures begin. Estimates ranged from 10 years to several decades.
Terry Mescher, an engineer for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said livestock numbers in the lake watershed Mercer County have tripled in the last 50 years or so. The increase of manure and the lack of proper disposal methods has greatly contributed to the problem, he said.
Mescher suggested all farmers use manure storage facilities with a five-month capacity. The action would allow farmers to store manure longer instead of spreading it on frozen fields during the winter months, which causes run-off into the lake, he explained.
Gibbs and Zehringer urged local producers to immediately seek assistance through public or private means to get their operations in sync with environmental standards. They'd like to see 100 percent compliance in one year, they said.
Will took the suggestion a step further and encouraged farmers to police each other.
"Talk to your neighbors ... you guys are going to have to get united," he said. "If one guy messes up, you're all going to hang."
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