The head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency got to see firsthand the good work some Ohio farmers are doing.
Andrew Wheeler, EPA administrator, toured Frank Burkett’s Stark County dairy farm, Oct. 6, and held a press conference, where he touted the agency’s cooperation with farmers under President Donald Trump’s administration.
“When it comes to environmental issues, our farmers are our first and greatest environmentalists,” said Burkett, the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation president, during the press conference.
Wheeler visited other sites in northeast Ohio and western Pennsylvania on Oct. 6-7, including the Black River Area of Concern, near Lorain, Ohio, brownfield sites near Youngstown, and the U.S. Coast Guard Station Cleveland Harbor on Lake Erie.
In July, Wheeler toured two farms involved in the Blanchard River Demonstration Farms Network, a joint project between the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Ohio Farm Bureau to study how different nutrient management practices impact water quality.
Best management practices
Clardale Farms sits just below the EPA’s definition of a large confined animal feeding operation with 690 cows. The regulatory threshold is 700 dairy cows. Burkett said they’re limited by their land base. They have about 900 acres in crops, mostly alfalfa and corn for silage.
But they behave like a permitted and more highly regulated facility, Burkett said. Burkett is in partnership with his uncles. His grandparents founded the farm. The farm has grown from milking 140 cows in the late 1990s to where it’s at now.
“Everything we do here, we do with an environmental mind set,” Burkett said, during the tour.
That includes a sand lane to separate sand used for bedding from manure, a solids separator that pulls out manure solids from wastewater and a 5 million gallon storage lagoon.
These are the kinds of systems it takes to avoid emergency winter application of manure and possibly polluting waterways, Burkett said. The issue is that these types of technologies are extremely expensive.
“We have about $1,000 a cow invested in nutrient management technology,” Burkett said. “It all adds up in a big hurry.”
They’ve worked with government agencies like the Natural Resource Conservation Service on cost-sharing projects to ease that financial burden, while carrying out best management practices for nutrient management.
Wheeler, a native Ohioan and former coal industry lobbyist, said the EPA has worked more cooperatively with farmers under President Donald Trump’s administration than anytime during the agency’s 50-year history.
“I hope you have seen during this administration a change in the way the EPA has been working with the agriculture community,” he said. “I want to work cooperatively with farmers.”
In fact, under the Trump administration, more than 60 environmental rules protecting have been reversed or weakened, with about 30 more in progress.
He specifically mentioned how the agency rolled back the Obama-era Waters of the United State, or WOTUS, rule, which had a wide and somewhat controversial definition of federal waterways, including wetlands, ponds, ditches and tributaries.
Farmers and landowners were concerned about the WOTUS rule putting burdensome and confusing regulations on them. The American Farm Bureau Federation was one of the leading opponents of the rule.
Under the new Navigable Waters Protection Rule, groundwater, most roadside or farm ditches, prior converted cropland and ephemeral waterways are not waters of the U.S. and, therefore, are not federally protected.
Wheeler said they wanted the regulations to be clear, for a farmer or landowner to stand on his or her property and be able to tell what the definition of a federal waterway is without needing the help of an attorney.
“We need fairness,” Wheeler said. “We need transparency. I don’t believe any of you want to violate the law. You know what the law is. You know what the law means.”
Wheeler listed clean water as one of the priorities of the agency moving forward.
“I don’t think that climate change is the biggest environmental issue facing the planet today,” he said. “I think water is.”
Burkett thanked Wheeler for the agency’s work to make sure the waters of the U.S. rules are clear and allow state’s to tailor environmental policies to their needs.
“We need common sense regulations,” Burkett said.
Wheeler also touched on pesticides during his visit to the Stark County farm. The decision to grant registration to two manufacturers of dicamba should be coming soon, so farmers can plan ahead.
Earlier this year, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the registration of three dicamba-based herbicides, based on issues with the product drifting and damaging other crops. The EPA delayed the withdrawal of the registration until July 31 to allow farmers who had already purchased it to use this year.
“I cannot tell you which way it will be decided until I review the science, but I can assure you that you will have a decision either way so you have clarity going into the 2021 growing season,” Wheeler said.