Mercer County Commissioners refused a request Tuesday by a local ag leader seeking to create a county position to help farmers solve the problem of excess manure in the Grand Lake Watershed.
Commissioners Rick Muhlenkamp and John Bruns told Ag Solutions group facilitator Jim Keller the county doesn't have enough money.
Keller said there are many practices and technologies Ag Solutions – a group of mostly livestock producers – is looking into, but participation in the nearly three-year-old organization has waned. Its members don't have the time or expertise to properly vet and test the new ideas, he said.
"I can't believe we can't find someone and enough money to do that job full time," Keller told commissioners. "I can't believe that with the money ag generates for this county that we can't fund a full-time position."
Mercer County annually ranks first in farm income among Ohio's 88 counties. Income from livestock makes up the majority of the ag receipts in the county.
Keller's frustration comes from commissioners' decision to fund only a part-time OSU Extension ag educator. Keller wants the post to be a county position, not an OSU position. The last time the county had a full-time Extension educator was in 2009.
Keller suggested having the individual work under the direction of Mercer County Economic Development Director Jared Ebbing. Commissioners created that full-time position in the late '80s or early '90s, commissioner Jerry Laffin said.
"The reason you fund Ebbing is because it's a boon economically to the county," Keller said. "We need someone like that working on the ag side to find uses for this manure."
"I think there's a lot of merit on what you've said, but at the end of the day we still have to pay the bills," Muhlenkamp said.
Muhlenkamp said commissioners are helping farmers by continuing to fund the county soil and water office, which in turn receives about 80 percent in state matching funds. Counties are not mandated to fund SWCD offices. The local SWCD office provides technical assistance and helps farmers install conservation practices designed to reduce nutrient and sediment runoff.
Additional state and federal funds and employees have been brought to the watershed in recent years to help farmers implement new manure rules, Muhlenkamp said.
The manure rules were triggered when the state designated the Grand Lake Watershed distressed in 2011 after humans and animals were sickened by algae toxins in Grand Lake. Studies show most of the nutrients that run off into the lake and feed the algae comes from farmland, the largest land use in the watershed.
The county has been trying to replace its ag Extension educator since Jim Hoorman left the position more than a year ago to take a similar full-time role in Putnam County. Hoorman worked half time in Mercer County and half on statewide issues. He specifically was chosen for the job due to his expertise with winter cover crops as a way to reduce nutrient runoff.
OSU Extension Director Dr. Stephen Wright in April recommended the county hire a full-time Extension ag educator to replace Hoorman. Commissioners told him the county only has funds for a half-time ag educator.
Early this spring Extension offered the position to a candidate who turned it down. A second candidate has been interviewed, Bruns said Tuesday, adding that he did not know if the candidate had been offered the job.
Commissioners said they would pay $19,900 of the ag Extension educator's annual salary and OSU would provide any additional salary and benefits. The ag educator would be an employee of OSU Extension and would work 20 hours a week in the county, Laffin explained.
Keller said he hopes the new ag educator can take the lead in pursuing technologies that give farmers options for their manure.
Ag Solutions member Brother Nick Renner, who also spoke with commissioners on Tuesday, said someone is needed to look into and coordinate efforts to find fixes for the watershed's excess manure and runoff.
"We're trying to be proactive because these rules aren't going to get any easier," Renner said.