A number of state officials encouraged local farmers’ help Wednesday evening in a new state watershed initiative that will pay them cash to participate.

The H2Ohio program was the subject of a well-attended meeting at Defiance’s Knights of Columbus hall. Some $30.3 million is being made available to northwest Ohio farmers this year to institute seven preferred nutrient management practices (see related story) aimed at improving Lake Erie watershed quality.

After several state officials — including the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s director — explained the program, others encouraged farmers’ participation in an initiative that will require farmers to provide various details about their land and crop rotation plans.

Among them was Mark Smith, conservationist with the Ohio branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Smith noted that the $30.3 million being made available to northwest Ohio farmers is a “big investment. How many of you, two to three years ago would have thought you would see that kind of investment in this watershed? You guys have been singled out, or pointed out, because of the watershed you’re in and the ecosystem that’s in the lake and how it’s reacting. You’ve got a great opportunity and a huge responsibility to make a difference.”

He added that “most likely with success,” the program would be expanded to the entire state.

Smith believes “not only is all of Ohio watching, but I contend that a lot of the country is watching to see what happens with voluntary conservation. Everyone of us in this room wants voluntary conservation to work. Everybody in the country wants voluntary contribution to work. ... So you’re going to be tested to make sure that it does work.”

But if it doesn’t, Smith said there may be no guarantee about what comes next.

“I’ll challenge you that you’re doing a good job, but what you’re doing still has room for improvement,” he said. “And if we make no improvement, or you don’t take that next step in your operation, then I’m not sure a program like this is going to be around for everybody else. And what comes after that may not be something that you, or I or anyone in the room like.”

He suggested that patience may be needed as the program unfolds.

“... we’re rolling out a $30 million program that started from scratch a few months ago,” said Smith. “There’s going to be some hiccups. It’s important that you understand that. We’ve got (county soil and water conservation) district staff that were already fully employed that are going to be taking on the responsibility of delivering these programs to you.”

Among the other speakers was Heather Taylor-Meisle, director of the Ohio Environmental Council, who noted that her organization spends “a lot of time doing battle with folks, including the agriculture community.”

However, a couple years, she explained, “we decided that that wasn’t working ... . All it did was make everybody feel bad with a lot of screaming. And so we reached out to the farming community and, said ‘we’d like to really kind of understand things. What am I missing? You are the original stewards of the land.’”

She thanked farmers for being gracious and kind following the change. Making mention of new partnerships, Taylor-Meisle concluded, “I know we can do this together.

And she noted that “everybody’s been in this together,” adding that “I think that this program is going to work. Is it going to be perfect? No. We need your feedback, and we need to be an attitude of continual improvement. But is this a really great start, because we have everybody in the deep end of the pool together? Absolutely.”

Scott Higgins, chief executive officer of the Ohio Dairy Producers Association, believes the program — under consideration for several years — can “move the needle” toward watershed improvement.

“I’ve heard from all of you and all of our organization membership, and said all along, mandatory regulations do not solve the problem — a one-size-fits-all does not work,” said Higgins. “What we worked on for the last two years now, in collaboration with the environmental community, the conservation community, our research institutions and our ag organizations and our board members ... was that we believe that if we put together a progressive voluntary program that could identify the best management practices — that if implemented widely and broadly, and it increased the adoption of those practices — that we could move the needle.”

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