Program to give private sector a shot at helping farmers cut phosphorus runoff

Farm & Dairy
Cover crops can help farmers manage soil, weeds and pests. (Farm and Dairy file pic).

Cover crops can help farmers manage soil, weeds and pests. (Farm and Dairy file pic).

(FARM AND DAIRY) – Researchers are experimenting with a new, private-sector program to pay farmers in the Western Lake Erie Basin to reduce their phosphorus runoff.

The program will pay farmers by the acre to use cover crops, no till, or both, to reduce their phosphorus runoff. Farmers will be paid based on the amount of phosphorus runoff their farm reduces, so they will be paid for performance, not practices. The program is partly based on recent interest in ecosystem services markets, like carbon markets.

It will also be open to farmers who are already doing those practices, or who are already signed up for other state and federal conservation programs.

The Conservation Technology and Information Center, a nonprofit based in West Lafayette, Indiana, that promotes and supports conservation practices for soil, water, air and wildlife resources, launched sign-ups for the pilot phosphorus load reduction stimulation program Oct. 5.

“We were thinking, why do we have to just go only for practices? Why can’t we actually pay for pounds of dissolved reactive phosphorus, because that’s the problem,” said Hans Kok, program director for the center.

Program

The program is focused specifically on dissolved reactive phosphorus, or DRP, because that’s the form of phosphorus that contributes the most to algae blooms in Lake Erie.

Payments to farmers will be calculated based on a nutrient tracking tool model that determines how much phosphorus runoff a farm reduces. Laura Johnson, director of the National Center for Water Quality Research at Heidelberg University, in Tiffin, Ohio, and her team will be handling the modeling.

For the one-year pilot, the program will only include no till and cover crops. Nutrient management plans would probably have the most direct impact on dissolved reactive phosphorus, Johnson said. But those practices are harder to directly quantify, and many farmers have signed up for nutrient management plans through H2Ohio already.

“H2Ohio has been so successful at getting those voluntary nutrient management plans, it didn’t seem like there’s much room in that area, so this is where we are,” Johnson explained.

The program is open to those who are already in H2Ohio or other state or federal conservation programs. Kok views the program, abbreviated as “PLUS-UP,” as an extra boost for farmers who are in other programs. It’s also open to farmers who are already using cover crops or no till systems.

“We will reward farmers who are already doing these things,” Kok said. “If a farmer has been in no till … he is keeping DRP out of the watershed — we want to just keep DRP out of the watershed, however it happens.”

While Kok said he would like to see some farmers try new practices through the program, the biggest bang for the program’s buck will come from people who have been using those practices for a while. Systems that have been in no till or have used cover crops for a while prevent more runoff, so keeping people using no till and cover crops is good for the lake.

Funding

In a similar vein to carbon markets, farmers will be paid through companies purchasing phosphorus credits — a unit that represents a certain amount of phosphorus runoff reduction. Bayer Crop Science is purchasing phosphorus credits for this pilot program.

“That is crucial, because that is a non-federal source,” Kok said. That means it won’t interfere with other programs like H2Ohio, or U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resource Conservation Service programs that farmers might want to sign up for.

For now, the program is set up as a one-year pilot. Whether or not the program continues after that will depend on whether Bayer or other private companies have any interest in buying more phosphorus credits beyond that year.

The new program focuses on the same practices that Bayer’s carbon program does, said Cintia Ribeiro, carbon field program lead for Bayer Crop Science. That means farmers already enrolled in Bayer’s carbon program can enroll in the phosphorus reduction program to increase their payments for the same practices.

Ribeiro is hoping the program will help Bayer and other agricultural businesses learn more about how practices that have benefits for carbon sequestration can also have other environmental benefits.

To get started, Bayer bought 500 credits for the program. For this year, Bayer will pay $100 per pound of dissolved reactive phosphorus, but farmers typically only lose a fraction of a pound of DRP per acre, Kok said. Based on estimates from research at Heidelberg University, farmers will likely receive an average of $3 per acre for no till, and $5 per acre for cover crops.

Modeling

The model considers soil type, slope and other factors at the field scale, along with whatever conservation practices a farmer uses, to determine how much runoff they are reducing with a particular practice. Weather is the trickiest thing to take into consideration, Johnson said. The model uses an average of about 10 years of past weather data.

While the program will rely on the model instead of directly monitoring how much runoff comes from fields, the model is based on research in the watershed, specifically, Johnson said.

“We’re hoping this approach, using a model like this to do a pay-for-performance or market-based approach, will be attractive to producers that aren’t interested in government programs,” Johnson said.

Next steps

The program is currently accepting sign-ups, at ctic.org. After that period, Kok said, the center will go over the program with farmers who sign up and start collecting data so Johnson and her team can calculate their payments.

“If we get a bunch of farmers signed up, and Heidelberg calculates that those farmers are actually keeping all the pounds out of the lake that we have in our budget, then we know … it’s a feasible program to do,” Kok said.

To prove the concept, Kok is hoping to get up to about 10,000 acres enrolled in the pilot program for 2022. If it goes well, he hopes to add more practices and acreage to the program down the road.

“Ultimately, of course, we would like to be, after the pilot, widespread and effect real change on the ground,” Johnson said.

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