Farmers and Phosphorus in Ohio’s Maumee Watershed: Perceptions, Practices and Potential

by: Robyn Wilson, Lizzy Burnett, Tara Ritter, Brian E. Roe and Greg Howard

Algal blooms have been a serious issue in Lake Erie since the 1960s. The blooms, which are harmful to wildlife and humans, occur when phosphorus levels are high within the lake. Although total phosphorus levels in Lake Erie decreased and stabilized during the 1980’s and 1990’s due to both farmer best management practices and other policies (e.g., phosphorus banned from detergents), data collected within the last decade have revealed an increase in dissolved reactive phosphorus (DRP). While there is some uncertainty about the current causes of this increase in DRP, experts have confidence that the changes are likely due to agricultural runoff during large rain events, particularly in the Maumee watershed. The Phosphorus Task Force of Ohio recommends that farmers use best nutrient management practices (BMPs) to reduce DRP loading into Lake Erie tributaries.

Agricultural BMPs are meant to improve soil health (e.g., conservation tillage, cover cropping, controlled traffic), increase nutrient management precision (e.g., soil testing, grid sampling, comprehensive nutrient management planning), improve the filtration of surface and subsurface runoff (e.g., filter strips, grass waterways, biofilters), and improve manure management (e.g., following Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) guidelines). Adoption of a variety of these practices can serve to curtail nutrient loss from agro-ecosystems, thereby decreasing the overall impact of agriculture on water quality.

Although BMPs are known to be effective at reducing nutrient loss, their adoption remains voluntary in Ohio and many farmers still choose not to practice them. The purpose of this study was to:

1) Investigate farmer decision-making in order to better understand the prevalence of a variety of BMPs in the Maumee watershed,
2) Identify why farmers choose to adopt certain BMPs, and
3) Identify what motivates individual farmer willingness to adopt additional practices on their farm.

This information may reveal what, if any, methods may be employed to increase BMP implementation, thereby ultimately improving water quality and protecting associated ecosystem services. Previous research has focused largely on sociodemographic predictors of adoption and economic motivations. To evaluate these complex decision-making processes, this survey incorporates a variety of behavioral and social motivators.

The descriptive findings in this report are the result of a survey conducted in early 2012 among row crop farmers living within the Maumee watershed of northwest Ohio (a watershed in the 5 Western Lake Erie drainage basin). This report includes a description of the study area and survey methods, as well as a summary of the survey findings with tables and figures.

Key findings in this report include:

1. A strong majority of farmers in the Maumee Watershed believe that agricultural practices (including both row crop and livestock operations) contribute to water quality issues and that the available best management practices are effective. However, a similar majority also believes that what they are doing on their own farm is currently adequate.

2. Farmers are fairly concerned about nutrient loss, believing it is likely to have a negative impact on water quality and profit. However, the seriousness of the impacts is perceived to be only moderate, especially at a local level (e.g., to the individual farm and farmer).

3. Farmers feel a limited amount of control over nutrient loss on their farms and the impact on water quality. However, most farmers are willing to take at least one new action on their farm to reduce nutrient loss, seeing it as beneficial and valuable, even though they don’t all agree about the necessity or fairness. This suggests that there is perhaps only a minority of farmers who do not feel the need to do more.

4. From a social perspective, approximately half of farmers feel pressure from within the farming community to adopt best management practices (more so for practices like filter strips compared to cover crops). Although they believe other farmers expect them to do so, they do not necessarily feel the need to be like other farmers in their community. When it comes to society in general, a minority believe that non-farming friends and family approve of their practices, and a similar minority feel the need to respond to societal wishes in terms of their farming practices.

5. Farmers are generally more aware of the algal issues in Grand Lake St. Mary’s than they are those in the Western Lake Erie Basin.

6. A minority of farmers participates in conservation programs (with the Conservation Reserve Program being most popular). There is also potential for increased adoption of several BMPs that may help to address the current dissolved reactive phosphorus issues in Lake Erie. Namely, a minority of farmers currently uses grid sampling, follow a comprehensive nutrient management plan, and use cover crops (citing issues associated with the costs and uncertainty). There is also potential to increase the percentage of farmers who avoid fall-winter application, in particular manure application. Finally, the majority use broadcast application in a limited tillage system, pointing to the potential to increase the incorporation or sub-surface application of nutrients.

The full findings of the report are available at:

Further Notes

Robyn Wilson is Assistant Professor, School of Environment and Natural Resources, Ohio State University

Lizzy Burnett and Tara Ritter are Graduate Research Assistants, School of Environment and Natural Resources, Ohio State University

Brian E. Roe is McCormick Professor, Department of Agricultural, Environmental and Development Economics, Ohio State University

Greg Howard is a post-doctoral researcher, Department of Agricultural, Environmental and Development Economics, Ohio State University

Funding provided by the National Science Foundation’s Coupled Human and Natural Systems Program and the Climate, Water and Carbon Initiative at Ohio State University.

Project website is:

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