Indiana officials are poised to implement new rules on how farmers can apply fertilizers in an effort to prevent water pollution. For many growers, the regulations will likely amount to a formalization of guidelines they already follow.
Bartholomew County farmer Harold Engelau raises corn, soybeans and wheat on about 6,000 acres. He says he takes care to make sure the fertilizer applied on his farm stays away from waterways that could cause it to run off.
And he uses sophisticated soil tests to plan treatments so they are as sparing as possible. As a result, he says he does not think he will have to do much to bring his practices in line with a state law on fertilizer use going into effect in February.
“I did see where we don’t need to be licensed, we just need to keep the records. And since we already keep the records I think that we’re going to be in compliance with the new rule already,” Engelau said.
The new law requires all growers who use at least 4,000 gallons annually of either manure or fertilizing chemicals to take similar steps to Engelau’s.
Four thousand gallons might sound like a large amount, but Indiana Office of the State Chemist Administrator Matt Pearson says anyone who farms more than a few acres will easily use that amount and more in a year.
He adds that the new rules are meant to give the state authority to respond to complaints about fertilizer runoff. Previously, the state could only act on a complaint if it involved manure from one of the large livestock farms known as confined animal feeding regulations or CAFOs.
Those are already regulated by the Department of Environmental Management, but even their rule did not apply to manure from out of state.
“If a pile of poo from thirty thousand birds in Indiana is a problem, why isn’t a pile of poo from thirty thousand birds that comes in from Ohio,” Pearson says.
“Manure is manure, a nutrient is a nutrient. Let’s have one rule to protect water quality.”
Fertilizer runoff can cause serious and lasting environmental damage. It unbalances aquatic ecosystems by allowing some organisms, like certain kinds of algae, to grow so much they eventually overwhelm their own habitats.
Some species of algae also produce toxins that can contaminate sources of drinking water.