Saturday, November 27th, 2010
By Nancy Allen
Zehringer promoted ag's importance to Kasich
  State Rep. Jim Zehringer criss-crossed Ohio for more than a year with gubernatorial candidate John Kasich, visiting farms and various agriculture-related businesses.
Kasich learned the importance of Ohio's nearly $100 billion agriculture industry.
"He got a better handle on it," Zehringer said of educating Kasich on everything ag. "He knew it was important but did not have a first-hand look at it."
The seed of friendship was planted as the Republican from Fort Recovery and the governor-elect traveled the state. The relationship now may grow as Kasich earlier this month named Zehringer the next director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture.
Manure management rules
Zehringer takes the job at a time when Ohio agriculture, the state's No. 1 industry, faces tough questions about water pollution. Manure runoff from farmland has been blamed as the main contributor of toxic algae blooms in Grand Lake this summer. The blooms kept visitors away from the area and devastated lake-related businesses.
Zehringer said ag leaders "can't stick our heads in the sand" anymore concerning environmental issues.
As a result of the local algae blooms - which also plagued 19 other lakes and ponds throughout Ohio this year - the Ohio Department of Natural Resources is drafting new manure management rules for the 98,000-acre Grand Lake Watershed, of which 80 percent is used for agriculture. The rules may be applicable to any other watershed receiving a "distressed" designation in the future.
The rules, which go into effect at the end of this year, are aimed at reducing the amount of phosphorous runoff when the ground is frozen. A ban on spreading manure between Dec. 15 and March 1 will be phased in and become effective in 2012.
Zehringer said he supports the new rules, but questions the dates because there are times within that period when soil and weather conditions could support manure application. He opposes spreading manure on frozen ground unless it is done on ground with ample cover crop to absorb it and while using proper setbacks from waterways.
"The bottom line is everybody should have a plan no matter how big or small you are and you need to know how to handle your nutrient byproducts," he said. "If your soils don't need it, you shouldn't be applying it."
Farmer accountability
Zehringer used to own a state-permitted poultry and fish operation in Fort Recovery before selling it to his nephew earlier this year. The operation, Meiring Poultry and Fish Farm, received awards for compliance and has been regarded as a model for best management practices in the state.
Even though he has spoken out against tougher ag regulations during recent years, officials from environmental and pro-lake groups generally are pleased with his appointment.
Joe Logan, director of the Ohio Environmental Council, said Zehringer is known as a ferocious defender of industrialized agriculture and someone willing to listen to different points of view. Logan believes Zehringer will be even-handed when it comes to violators.
"It's been notable that he has admonished his colleagues in the agricultural community to step up to the plate and take some responsibility for concerns that have developed around Grand Lake," Logan said. "Frankly, too often ag folks have pointed in other directions, saying 'it's the geese, it's septic tanks and we're not at fault.' In this case Rep. Zehringer has acknowledged ag has a very profound shared responsibility to help this situation."
Tim Lovett, president of the nonprofit Lake Improvement Association (LIA), said Zehringer's appointment is positive, but the proof will be in his actions. The roughly 1,000-member LIA is known for bringing Grand Lake's water quality issues to light in recent years. The group at times also has been at odds with local farmers.
"Time will tell," Lovett said. "I see Jim as a guy who can help us as well as agriculture ... he is certainly very familiar with the issues. Hopefully I can say that two years from now."
Department of Agriculture
The future director has been criticized for his support of a bill that would have, among other things, folded the state's department of agriculture, National Guard, Capital Square Review and Advisory Board and other agencies into an homeland security department representing multiple state entities.
Zehringer said he and 34 other state representatives supported the bill because it was designed to reduce the size of government and administrative costs. It would not have diminished the workings of any of the departments, he claimed.
"We have more cabinet posts in Ohio than the president of the United States; it's almost double," Zehringer said. "We're facing at least an $8 billion deficit. We need to make government smaller by less spending and more action."
Zehringer said he believes ODA is still too big, adding that if costs aren't cut, the state faces increasing budget problems.
"I believe everything is on the table," Zehringer said of balancing the state's budget.
Issues he will tackle
The ODA will continue to keep food and animal safety its top priority, he said. At the request of Kasich, Zehringer will work to promote Ohio agriculture and value-added products by collaborating with universities and colleges to use Third Frontier money for research.
Kasich also has pledged to eliminate the state's inheritance tax, which Zehringer claims makes it more difficult for farmers to pass on operations to their heirs.
Additional online stories for this date
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