Even before the Toledo water crisis of 2014, which left more than a half-million residents without drinking water due to a large algae bloom in Lake Erie, the 4R Advisory Committee, Nutrient Stewardship Council and stakeholders including the Ohio AgriBusiness Association were busy working on a plan to curtail the amount of fertilizer that runs off farms into the state’s waterways.
The plan, dubbed the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program, involves implementation of the ‘4R’ nutrient management practice of using the right source of nutrients at the right rate at the right time and in the right place. Instead of directly targeting growers, the program enlists the help of ag retailers to educate farmers on best practices for nutrient management.
“Ag retailers are either providing services or recommending nutrients for farmers – the end users. This industry-led voluntary program takes a higher-level approach while reaching more end users in the whole process. We focus the time, energy and money toward a smaller group, but in turn, we are going to reach a larger group,” says Andrew Allman, executive director of the Nutrient Stewardship Council.
The program was officially launched in 2014 with the goal of maximizing crop uptake of nutrients while minimizing the nutrient loss that flows into the state’s waterways. To earn certification in the program, retailers must undergo yearly audits conducted by independent third-party auditors that focus on the requirements of the three sections of the program’s standard: Initial training and ongoing education to staff and customers; monitoring of 4R implementation in business practices; and following nutrient recommendations and application of proven best practices.
“We share the most up-to-date information about responsible nutrient stewardship with these nutrient service providers, so they can then take that information and share it with the growers they’re servicing,” Allman says. “We also try to help the agribusiness sector adapt to new research and technology specifically in the area of nutrient stewardship.”
When the program launched, 15 ag retailers signed up showing interest in the program; currently some 70 companies are on board with 17 certified locations as of August 2015, including Morral Companies in Morral, Ohio.
“We have a long and rich heritage of working with our customers, having been in business in this area for more than 50 years. With that comes a tremendous responsibility to do the right things for our company, our customers, and our communities in which we live and work,” Daryl Gates, president and CEO of Morral Companies, told the Nutrient Stewardship Council. “The 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification affirms this effort and tells all with whom we interact that we can be trusted to provide the best in agronomic advice and service.”
Allman admits the program, like any new program, has its skeptics. The program is not intended to hinder the practices and bottom line of retailers or growers. The requirements of the voluntary program are based on a scientific framework for plant nutrition management and sustained crop production, while considering farms’ needs.
Allman says many retailers and growers are already “doing the right thing and following the requirements of the program.”
Jason Loyer, who farms about 3,000 acres of corn, beans and wheat in Marion, has been implementing environmentally friendly production practices for nearly a decade – even before his fertilizer supplier Morral told him about the 4R program.
“For us, it’s the way we were doing things already,” says Loyer, who is the fourth generation in his family to farm. “We grid sample everything. Every acre is grid sampled and fertilized according to what the soil test is. We map the field in two-and- one-half-acre grids. That’s where we take our soil tests, and that’s how we use the GPS satellite.”
He adds, “We come back every couple of years and take soil tests again in the same place. Then, when we apply our fertilizer; it goes off of that map that’s generated from the soil tests. That’s how we apply our fertilizer. All of our liquid fertilizer is banded, and nothing is applied on top of the ground. It’s all put underneath in the band. That’s the biggest thing that we do that fits what the 4R stand for.”
Loyer says the effort to conserve nutrients came naturally.
“It’s important for the environment,” he says. “We all need the water, so we better take care of it, and it makes sense for future generations to take care of the land.”