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ODAg Makes H2Ohio Farm Initiative One-Year Program, Reduces Target Funding Goal

Source: The Hannah Report

Because of revenue shortfalls and other problems caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODAg) has scaled back its efforts to help Northwest Ohio farmers finance best management practices (BMPs) to reduce harmful algal blooms, according to Ohio Lake Erie Commission Director Joy Mulinex and the recently-released H2Ohio annual report.

“Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and funding limitations, ODAg reduced the program from four years to one year, with two additional years contingent on future funding. ODAg has developed goals for the revised one-year program,” the H2Ohio report says. “ODAg’s annual goal for cropland enrollment in the H2Ohio program is one million acres with a total funding request for 2021 BMPs of $42 million.”

The budget, HB166 (Oelslager), provided up to $172 million for H2Ohio over the biennium, with ODAg receiving $30.3 million in FY20. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) received $46.2 million in H2Ohio funds in FY20, and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (Ohio EPA) got nearly $8.7 million, taking the total for FY20 to about $85.2 million. The other half of the funding was expected to be allocated in FY21 if the money was available.

“Funds directed to ODAg in FY20 were all dedicated to funding the first year of the program. ODAg has been focused on rolling out the first-year contracts, and decisions on remaining H2Ohio funds for the three agencies have not yet been made,” Mulinex told Hannah News. According to the H2Ohio report, only about $2.5 million of the $30.3 million was spent in FY20, but nearly $27 million is encumbered. About $827,000 was left over at the end of the fiscal year. All of the encumbered and remaining funding is expected to be spent on farmer BMPs in 2021, along with a reduced level of FY21 H2Ohio funding to take the program to the target of $42 million for the year.

“Preventing nutrient runoff from farms is a key piece of addressing the harmful algal bloom problem in the Western Basin of Lake Erie, and ODAg is looking at all potential federal funding programs to make that happen. Specifically, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) and USDA-NRCS Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCCP) align with ODAg’s efforts in the Western Lake Erie Basin,” Mulinex continued.

“When we rolled out ODAg’s portion of H2Ohio in February, it was a four-year program. Due to rollout delays and fiscal concerns resulting from COVID-19, the program was reassessed with guaranteed funding for one year and the potential to continue the program for years two and three if funds are available,” Mulinex said. “COVID-19 also delayed the implementation of the program’s BMPs. We had originally hoped that producers would begin implementing BMPs on their farms for crop year 2020 but pushed the initial year of implementation to crop year 2021.”

According to the H2Ohio report, “To reach the projected phosphorus reduction goals for the Western Lake Erie Basin, ODAg will need additional funding to maintain program delivery across the Maumee River Watershed beyond 2021. As part of the application process, producers were asked to apply for up to three years of funding, with funding for 2022 and 2023 practices contingent on future funding of the program. Based on existing applications, an estimated $45 million to fund crop year 2022 practices and $45 million to fund crop year 2023 practices would be needed.”

ODAg held a series of eight informational meetings throughout February 2020 across H2Ohio’s 14-county target area, according to the report.

“The interest was remarkable, with 2,500 producers attending. Soil and water conservation districts (SWCDs) received about 2,000 applications, including nearly 1.2 million acres of cropland and approximately $180 million in requested funding,” the report says.

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