Fertilizer Dealers, Ohio Farmers Team Up for Cleaner Water
Participating ag retailers and farmer customers in the Western Lake Erie Basin have greatly expanded the use of variable rate technology (VRT) to cut fertilizer losses from crop fields through a cost-share provided by the Partnership for Ag Resource Management (PARM), funded through the EPA’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Twenty-six retailers and their 253 growers participated within the Sandusky, Cedar-Portage, Blanchard, and Lower Maumee River Watersheds in Ohio. An estimated 20,353 pounds of phosphorus and 1729 pounds of dissolved reactive phosphorus were kept on fields and out of area waterways from the use of VRT on 20,069 acres.
VRT relies on multiple soil samples taken throughout fields in order to determine fertilizer application rate. The technology also takes advantage of the differences in fertility and productivity within a field. Low spots that stay wet longer in the spring, or high spots where topsoil may be thinner may not be as productive as other parts of the field. By applying less fertilizer in less productive areas, and the optimum amount of fertilizer for more productive areas, farmers and ag retailers can be more confident that the crop will use the nutrients applied and not leave valuable nutrients vulnerable to washing off during intense rain events.
Since the start of the PARM project in the Sandusky River Watershed, Ohio in 2010, acres using this approach have increased from 17% to 74% of approximately 757,319 total acres serviced by ag retailers participating with PARM. In 2015, the project secured funding through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and from 2016 through 2019, the EPA’s Initiative, and has since distributed over 26,500 VRT acres. These incentives allow ag retailers to offer up to 100 free VRT acres to customers who are new to the technology.
Phil Bowsher, plant manager at The Andersons’ Fostoria Branch reported, “Growers that got started with VRT because of the cost-share program have paid for additional acres after seeing the benefits.” Lee Orians, a Certified Crop Advisor with Heritage Cooperative in Upper Sandusky, Ohio commented, “The program has gotten many people to soil sample and apply according to needs. This is what we have needed for years.” In 2017, PARM surveyed retail cost-share participants and found a shocking 82% reported offering a self-funded cost-share would generate company revenue based on: increased income from VRT program application and related products sales, savings from the elimination of a third party in the cost-share and savings from more efficient fertilizer application. Several have already developed and released their own program based on the amount of revenue generated from their participation. In addition, over 70% stated they expected more than 50% of enrolled growers to expand acres out-of-pocket based on positive feedback. Almost all found this to be true in the first year, with additional acres added in the second year.
The Partnership is a non-profit effort focused on collaborating with ag retailers to promote, track, report, and estimate nutrient loss reductions from beneficial products and services sales. More than 80 fertilizer dealer locations are currently participating in the effort throughout the Great Lakes and Upper Mississippi River Basins.