2013 Ag Retail Outlook: Shaping Nutrient Management Policy Through Education

Water will be the number one issue for agriculture in 2013. Will the drought pattern continue? How will water demands be rationed among irrigation, navigation and endangered species? Although water quantity may be the headline issue, the negotiation toward local water quality policies will also impact future generations of farmers.

In the Chesapeake Bay watershed, state nutrient management policies have become the most restrictive regulations in the nation. These policies, which are designed to protect the environment, have tremendous financial cost to farmers and have lasting social impacts on the risks for families to retain farm ownership.

There is the opportunity in your state for 2013 to advance water quality policy based on good science that balances environmental, economic and social sustainability. But there is also the threat that these policies will be developed by well-intentioned people that do not understand crop management or economics.

These state water quality policy opportunities (or threats) will come in three shapes in 2013.

In April 2013, EPA will propose expansions to the federal permit for concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO) to include additional animal operations and also increase the restrictions on land application of nutrients. States with delegated authority from EPA will need to address these additional criteria in order to maintain authority to issue individual and general permits.

Mississippi River basin states may initiate the process toward Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL) for rivers with strategies to reduce nutrient pollution. For example, Iowa Governor Terry Branstad announced November 19, 2012, their proposed “Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.”

EPA and USDA NRCS have been working with states to design assessment programs for individual farms that assure that a farm “voluntarily” meets state water quality goals. Farmers hope these programs will shield them from future state regulations. Minnesota intends to establish an Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program to “provide certainty to producers that their attainment and maintenance of certification meets water quality goals and standards of the State.” Virginia has passed legislation that provides a farmer a “presumption of compliance” with state water quality standards and the Chesapeake Bay TMDL, by implementing a Resource Management Plan. In Louisiana, farmers who complete the Master Farmer Program are presumed to be in compliance with Louisiana’s soil and water conservation requirements.

The challenge for 2013 is: will your state be developing water quality policies that are balanced for agriculture, or instead, place an unreasonable burden on farmers? The answer will be influenced by the state’s agricultural stakeholders: farm organizations, retailers, and crop advisors who step up to the table and educate the policy-makers.

For most non-ag people, the simplistic approach in any water quality policy is to advocate reductions of nutrient applications rates. If there is excess nitrogen or phosphorous in surface or ground water, just have farmers apply less.

Ag stakeholders must deliver the message that farmers are implementing the 4Rs of nutrient stewardship to maintain economic, environmental and social sustainability. We must advocate that nutrient pollution can best be minimized through increased nutrient use efficiency. Farmers should calculate the right rate, select the right form of nutrients, apply those nutrients at the right time, and apply in the soil at the right place.

In Pennsylvania, we have focused on the revised NRCS 590 standard, which defines “the management of nutrients as the right amount, right source, right placement and right timing of the application of nutrients to ensure adequate soil fertility for plant production and to minimize the potential for environmental degradation.”

PennAg Industries Association and other agricultural stakeholders have formed the “PA 4R Alliance” to collectively work with farmers to deliver science-based systems that improve crop productivity through increased nutrient use efficiency and reduced losses of nutrients to the environment.  We will pursue opportunities to: 1) increase the productivity and profitability of Pennsylvania farms; 2) enhance environmental conservation; and 3) expand the adoption by Pennsylvania farmers of sustainable nutrient stewardship systems.

Where can you start? Ag retailers and crop advisors must educate state policy-makers on current farm-specific nutrient management practices. The models used by states should include accurate data on local yields, fertilizer and manure application practices.

Your knowledge and shared experience can make a difference toward the establishment of good agricultural nutrient policy in your state in 2013.

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