Groups urge Ohio farmers to reduce nutrient runoff

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NEWARK, Ohio (AP) -- Ohio farmers are being asked to voluntarily cut down on the manure and fertilizer that runs off their fields and pollutes the state's lakes and rivers before the government has a chance to impose restrictions.

The Ohio Farm Bureau and other agriculture-industry groups have sent thousands of letters to farmers advising them to take proactive steps such as not using more fertilizer than needed.

"If farmers don't do this on their own, there will be federal and state laws and regulations that will mandate how you farm," the letter said.

Phosphorus from farm fertilizers and livestock manure is suspected of feeding the algae blooms that have been a problem in Lake Erie and inland lakes.

Algae have been blamed for fish kills and create an unsightly scum that chases away tourists and closes beaches. The algae also can cause skin rashes and, for swimmers who ingest them, diarrhea and nausea.

The state warned people around Grand Lake St. Marys in western Ohio not to touch the water three years ago because of a toxic algae outbreak. State officials later banned farmers around Ohio's largest inland lake from spreading manure on frozen land.

Ohio's agriculture and environmental officials have been hesitant to issue wider restrictions. In March, they asked farmers to make the adjustments on their own.

The state suggested that farmers play a part in cutting phosphorus runoff by taking frequent soil samples and following guidelines for applying fertilizers. It also recommended that farmers don't put fertilizer on frozen fields.

Larry Antosch, environmental policy director for the Ohio Farm Bureau, said there is concern that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could order changes for farming in the Lake Erie watershed, something the agency has done in the Everglades and Chesapeake Bay regions.

He said the Farm Bureau will hold informational meetings statewide.

Gary Baldosser, who farms in Seneca and Sandusky counties, said the warning is persuasive and that farmers need to use new techniques to reduce runoff.

"There are satellite photos that confirm what's happening," he said. "But personally, my hope is that through all of these discussions everybody comes to the table and we have an open discussion on this issue and we don't all start pointing fingers."

There are some doubts whether water quality will improve without forced changes.

"Voluntary measures have been ongoing for decades, and we still have not gotten to a satisfactory result," said Joe Logan, agricultural-programs director with the advocacy group Ohio Environmental Council.

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Information from: The Advocate, http://www.newarkadvocate.com