Ohio agriculture industry concerned about what happens if voters pass the Lake Erie Bill of Rights
If Toledo voters pass the Lake Erie Bill of Rights ballot measure this week, Ohio farmers are some of the most concerned constituents, says Joe Cornely, spokesman for the Ohio Farm Bureau.
Farmers, he believes, are very likely an obvious target for lawsuits that may arise if the legislation passes on Feb. 26 during Toledo’s special election.
“The simplistic description is that farmers are polluting the lake,” Cornely said. “But the reality is that while certainly farmers have a role to play in keeping the lake clean, the extent to which that pollution is occurring and why it’s occurring and how do you stop it is an extremely complex equation to be figured out.”
And the cost, he said, is not cheap.
“We’re spending millions of dollars to get the answer to what’s going on and how do we mitigate it. And unfortunately those aren’t things that you can just wave a magic wand and solve overnight,” Cornely said. “I suggest that if we take the time to get it right, the long-term benefits will be exponentially greater.”
Great Lakes Now is bringing a variety of perspectives about the issue with these extended conversations:
Making Waves at the Ballot Box: Effort to pass Lake Erie Bill of Rights started with citizens concerned about drinking water crisis
The Global Movement in Local Courts: Legal questions about how the Lake Erie Bill of Rights would work surround the Toledo election
Cornely recently spoke with Great Lakes Now about the ballot initiative and why he believes voters should not support it. Here’s an edited version of that conversation:
Great Lakes Now: Those in agriculture have been through a lot in recent years, including taking a beating in the media, is that correct?
Joe Cornely: Oh, absolutely. Since the Toledo Water Crisis it’s been the No. 1 policy and environmental issue for farmers in Ohio. It was on our agenda before, but when you have something like 400-500,000 people being told, “Don’t drink the water,” it shoots to the top of the priority list pretty quickly.
How have things changed, in relation to general practices around farms in the past 10-15 years, and how does that relate to what’s going on with Lake Erie right now?
The charge that nothing’s being done is absolutely false. Some of the things that some activist organizations want done are not being done, for good reasons that we can spell out. But, not having what you want done is not the same as not having something done. We have since the Toledo Water Crisis, two first-in-the-nation legislation passed in Ohio, the first one helping farmers become better at applying nutrients to the point where most of them now must have training and certification.
The second one gets to the proper application of nutrients and being very aware that how and when you apply nutrients can have a positive or negative effect on the lake. We now have state law that you can’t apply manure fertilizers when weather conditions would make it conducive to running off into the lake. Farmers have spent millions of dollars of their own money to determine the cause.
The algae issue seems to be improving, but one part of the equation, which is spring precipitation, is uncontrollable. Is there anything that can be done?
You’ve hit the nail on the head there. What we’ve learned is that a farmer can do everything absolutely right, and Mother Nature will win. There’s a study that shows 85 percent of the spring nutrient loading in Lake Erie can happen in a two- to three-hour window. When you get one of those four-inch rains in two hours, it cancels out all the good a farmer’s done over a year or two or five years. So you can’t weatherproof farming.
But it’s something we’re trying to figure out how to do: how can we slow down the fertilizer that runs off a field during these deluges?
We’re also looking at farming practices that will mitigate the problem. Farmers are learning more about something called cover crops, where they keep crops on the fields even when the crops they want to harvest are not growing. It improves the soil quality which absorbs more nutrients and acts as a buffer, it catches and acts as a filter. They’re looking at applying their nutrients in a much more scientific way. Instead of spreading nutrients on top of fields, broadcasting it, they’re placing it highly precisely, placing the nutrients under the surface in very tight strips where the crop access it much more easily and efficiently, and so the crop gets it instead of Lake Erie.
Doesn’t sub-soil placement of fertilizers require specialized equipment?
A couple hundred thousand dollars’ worth of equipment, and so that’s one of the challenges – farmers want to do what’s right, but they want to do it without putting themselves out of business. And the people who don’t believe farmers aren’t trying don’t recognize that. To them it’s a one-sided problem: we want to fix the lake. Our belief is you need to address both problems in parallel, otherwise you might solve one problem and create another.
How are new regulations, restrictions and other issues, algae-related, costing farmers money, time or more?
If you have a larger-scale operation you can amortize that cost, if you’ve got a smaller operation, 100, 200, 500 acres, it’s pretty hard to justify that, but they’re looking at ways to do that. And unfortunately, this is all coming at a time when farm incomes been on the decline for five years now, and corn and soybean prices are half what they were in 2012. That’s an issue as well. Farmers are willing to take steps they know work.
Do you believe those engaged in agriculture, of all types, are one of the most logical targets for legal action, if the Lake Erie Bill of Rights passes?
I would say it’s highly likely farmers will be among the first businesses targeted.
Do you foresee individual farmers being targeted, or farms in an entire township? In other words, how do you see this playing out?
That’s part of the problem. The language is so broad and so non-specific that anything could happen. As we look at this, I don’t think the average citizen of Toledo who’s going to be voting has thought through this. If you look at this, certainly farmers can be sued, but so can most employers in Toledo.
The city itself could be in a situation where city taxpayers are paying to sue themselves. And so as soon as an accident happens and combined sewage overflow enters the lake they can sue the city and the city’s going to have to pay for it. Road salt. What if road salt’s shown to get in the lake, wastewater discharge.
And then you look at employers in the area, if I’m looking to give my employees a raise or stick money back because I know I’m going to be sued, guess where that money’s going to go?
If the voters of Toledo look at this they’re going to know it’s not in their best interest. The headline is Save Lake Erie, but you need to read further than the headline.
So you would also describe it as a pretty complicated legal situation?
I think the case can be made that not only is this a really bad idea but that it’s unconstitutional. There are so many pieces of this that call into question the legality. In Ohio, a city’s authority is limited to its boundaries. This is going to give, however many citizens there are in Toledo, it’s going to give them authority over 35 counties in Ohio, the state of Indiana, the state of Michigan and parts of Canada. They don’t have authority to invalidate a license or permit that’s been granted by the state or federal government and this proposal does all of that. The constitutionality of this proposal simply is not going to hold up to a legal challenge.
But I think that’s part of the motivation: if you’re unable to have influence through normal processes, then let’s start to throw out lawsuits. That’s sort of the fallback that we’re seeing more and more.
Lucas County is obviously not very rural, and the City of Toledo is not at all. How can those representing the ag community hope to affect the election in an urban setting?
I know we’ve discussed the ramification of what’s going to happen if this passes. Clearly we know this is not good, but what do we want to do about it? We’ve not settled on that yet. To on extent this is a Toledo city event, but if it passes it would have immediate implications. If an individual is given these broad authorities to sue, on behalf of nature, anyone they choose, I can’t even begin to think of what the overall consequences would be. I guess my message to the residents of Toledo, the voters of Toledo, is to take the time to look beyond the headline and the emotional appeal of doing something to help the lake and really look at the consequences if this ballot measure passes.
With myriad possibilities for legal actions, would the Lake Erie Bill of Rights bring any meaningful changes?
On day one someone’s going to sue a farmer and a business and then someone is going to get an injunction filed and absolutely, all these things are going to happen and so you think well, since it’s not really ever going to happen it’s not going to hurt anything. Anytime you look at something like this, nothing happening equals a lot of money. And businesses, employers in Toledo are going to be spending a lot of money. It’s likely Toledo will have to spend money, farmers will have to spend money.
Is there a mis-perception among some that farmers have plenty of money?
I think the No. 1 misperception I come up against, not specifically with this issue, but in general, is that farming is corporate. And the reality is that 98 percent of the agriculture in Ohio and America is a family farm. It may be a 50-acre farm or a 1,000-acre farm, but it’s a family business. That misperception is used by people who are against farming. Their story is the same as the family drug store, the family shoe shop, the few local family grocery stores.
What real-world consequences could there be for Toledo residents if this measure passes?
The cultural fabric of Ohio would be tremendously and negatively impacted. You’ll still get food, you might have to pay some more for it. No industry would be able to survive the broad, unrestricted attack that could come if this all plays out. It would be the Wild West. Any business is going to have to start building in the cost of litigation. It’s going to become considerably more difficult to be in any kind of business in the northern third of the state of Ohio.
Is it relevant that the Lake Erie Bill of Rights is being supported or assisted by participants that are not from the Toledo area?
Absolutely. Again it goes back to encouraging readers and viewers and listeners to dig beyond the headlines. I’m sure the people who would like to have this happen would portray themselves as a small group fighting against giant agri-business, and that’s just not the case. Are there local people who are genuinely passionate about this issue and willing to take on this job? Sure there are. A thoughtful voter will look into who people are on all sides of this issue.
Featured Image: Rustic Barns in Ohio, Photo by unknown photographer via pixabay.com cc 0.0