Common Sense on P Pollution

Post by Brent Sohngen (

Gov. John Kasich recently fired his director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture over concerns about water quality. One of the things the former director, David Daniels, said to The Dispatch in a recent article was that ”…there’s not enough available expertise, financial assistance and farm-specific information to help the owners of 7,000 farms come up with plans to manage and reduce fertilizer runoff, particularly phosphorus.” This quote sounds good of course, and perfectly plausible, but it couldn’t be further from the truth.

First, expertise is not lacking. There probably is not a more-studied public policy problem in Ohio. Opioids are a more important problem, but until the past few years, they haven’t gotten near the research effort as Lake Erie.

The state of Ohio and the federal government have put millions of dollars into understanding the problem, and it’s actually fairly well understood. Farmers put phosphorus on their farm fields, and some of it makes its way off their fields and into streams and Lake Erie. There is a direct correlation between how much they put on their fields and how much comes off.

Over the years, farmers have used techniques like conservation tillage, grass waterways and cover crops to trap some of this phosphorus in their fields for a while longer, but it eventually comes out anyway. Given the extent to which these practices have been used in the Lake Erie watershed, lots of phosphorus is trapped but still coming out. This just means that it is even more important to reduce current applications to reduce the current problem.

Second, financial assistance is not lacking. The federal government has spent more than $30 million per year for years in the Lake Erie watershed to try to fix the problem. Few problems receive this much attention. Opioids recently got $26 million from the federal government statewide. But farm conservation payments have been going on for years.

Since the mid-1980s, the federal government has sent over $1.3 billion to farmers in Ohio — $600 million of it in the Lake Erie watershed — for them to clean up water pollution. Simply put, there is not a lack of money available to help farmers clean up their pollution. Maybe lots of that money has been wasted or not spent on the right things, but it is not accurate to say that financial assistance is lacking.

Third, farm-specific information is not lacking. Farmers have enormous resources at their disposal, from farm consulting services that charge money, to extension services that provide lots of information for free. The state requires farmers to get education before applying pesticides and nutrients, and Ohio State University Extension provides this education at highly subsidized rates. Education and information simply are not lacking, and state law already requires most farmers to take advantage of low-cost information sources like OSU Extension.

But even if education or information are lacking for any farmer, the question is, whose responsibility is it to get that information? Shouldn’t farmers have the responsibility to gather information on their soils, their inputs, their outputs and everything else about their business on their own? Surely it is not state’s responsibility to tell every farmer exactly what to do.

Actually, the problem in Lake Erie is relatively clear: Too much phosphorus is being applied to fields, whether from fertilizers or manure. The solution is also clear: Less needs to be applied. The question is, how are we going to get less applied?

If we decide to regulate or subsidize, we may be able to reduce costs by targeting regulations to specific farmers who have too much phosphorus in their fields already. But either way, we cannot afford to waste money on things that don’t work like we have in the past. We need a new approach, and perhaps this is why the governor has decided to change directions.

Published in Columbus Dispatch November 11, 2018