Ann Mills, USDA deputy undersecretary for natural resources and environment, made a whirlwind visit to Ohio Oct. 21. Mills stopped first to speak to the Farmland Preservation Summit, organized by the Ohio Department of Agriculture, before heading for a tour of Grand Lake St. Marys.
I caught up with her and an entourage of conservation leaders along the way at Steve Robinson’s Farm north of Marysville. Robinson has about 200 acres enrolled in the Scioto CREP. Under a warm October sun, his golden fields were lush with warm season grasses and it proved the perfect place to talk with Mills about the value of voluntary incentives to encourage conservation practices and improve the quality of the environment.
“After 75 years of leadership NRCS is still leading the nation with practices to protect our soil, air and water,” she said. “We need to examine what we can do in the 21st Century to build on the past relations we have established with farmers and foresters and environmentalists. We must use the new tools that technology and science have given us to add to our legacy. What the past is telling us is that voluntary incentives delivery measurable results.”
Ann Mills visited Steven Robinson's farm that includes this wetland as part of his 200-acre Scioto CREP contract. Mills told the gathering that farmers should be paid for work like this that benefits society in general.
Her words are especially relevant given the situation at Grand Lake St. Marys, Lake Erie and other bodies of water that were contaminated with blooms of blue green algae or cyanobacteria this summer. Runoff from fertilizer and manure have been implicated in the blooms which caused Grand Lake as well as more than 10 other state reservoirs to be shut down to boating and swimming this summer. New regulations released by the Ohio Division of Soil and Water Resources require producers in watersheds like Grand Lake that are designated as “distressed” to implement and follow a nutrient management program. They also restrict any land application of manure in the watershed between Dec. 15 and Mar. 1.
“The (USDA) secretary (Vilsack) is aware of the situation here and state conservationist Terry Cosby has been doing a fabulous job dealing with it. It is an example of a place where the right management practices, voluntary practices with incentives can make a difference.”
She urged farmers in the area to pursue nutrient management practices and other conservation efforts to achieve the goals.
“We need to bundle the options together and encourage producers to adopt whatever makes the most sense to improve the situation. USDA wants continue to create space for communities to help voluntary programs work”
Turning to the golden fields behind her, Mills said, “This is a perfect example of how NRCS services can be put to use in a well-managed farm. There are waterfowl and game birds and wetlands and filter strips. But it is not a gold-plated approach. It is practical and affordable.”
Robinson has 11 more years on the CREP contract he signed to keep the fields in grasses. When I asked him what might happen after the contract is up, he said he would wait and see what other programs are available. “I am a farmer and my goal is to farm,” he said, “but who knows by then maybe there will be a need for this grass as an ethanol feedstock. Or maybe there will be another program offered.”