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Focus on Agriculture

June 18, 2012

A Watchful Eye on an Important Watershed

By Ken Gordon

If you step off Fred Yoder’s front porch and walk about 200 paces, you’ll be standing in Big Darby Creek. The Big Darby Creek Watershed is noted as one of the Midwest’s most ecologically diverse watersheds. It hosts many threatened and endangered species. Fred, his wife, Debbie, and his children farm 1,500 acres within the Big Darby’s watershed. Like many farmers in the area, he has implemented environmentally sound farming practices to help protect the watershed.

All farmers are keenly aware of the relationship between their farming practices and the natural resources they rely on. They keep their eyes on the environment around them. But in Fred’s case there are other eyes watching as well. The Darby was designated an Ohio Scenic River in 1984, and later a National Scenic River. The designation is supported by the Darby Creek Association, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the EPA and more than 60 other government agencies and private organizations.

The many watchful eyes that work to keep the Darby in its natural state don’t bother Fred. About 20 years ago, he joined the Operation Future Association (OFA) right after the Darby became a State Scenic River. “We rented canoes and traveled the Darby,” Fred says. “We found that the best areas with an abundance of fish and wildlife were near the farms that were practicing conservation tillage.”

Fred and his family have farmed close to the Darby near the small town of Plain City, Ohio, since 1957, and he uses conservation measures on all of the acreage he farms. Fred agrees that conservation practices on the farm have an economic benefit by requiring fewer trips over the field and by substantially reducing sediment runoff. Fred’s experience is typical of many other farmers today; doing the right thing also makes economic sense.

The Big Darby Watershed drains 580 square miles of land, and early research conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency showed causes of impairment to the Big Darby Watershed to include: nutrient enrichment, siltation, organic enrichment, pathogens, low dissolved oxygen and habitat alterations. Among the sources that have impacted the watershed, according to EPA, are row crop agriculture, pastures and land application of manure, but also home sewage treatment systems, development, urban runoff, channelization, riparian removal and sewage disposal.

Agriculture is doing its part to protect the watershed. Today, Operation Future boasts more than 140 farms. The members of OFA are proud of the water quality in the Darby. According to Fred, they feel very strongly about keeping “the high water quality and diversity found in the watershed.” After the group’s first canoe trip, they decided to host another trip and include members from many environmental organizations and government agencies. As Fred recalls, “We had a farmer in each canoe right alongside members of these groups. We found we all wanted the same thing, and the other groups found that farmers are good stewards of the land.”

In 2004 the Darby was declared one of the 10 most endangered rivers in the country by the national conservation group American Rivers. It is the only national and state scenic river that lies within close proximity to a major metropolitan area – Columbus, Ohio. Not only farming, but also urban expansion increases the awareness of what happens within the watershed. And a special agreement regarding development has resulted from all of the efforts to raise awareness about protecting the watershed. The bottom line is that farmers have been allowed to play a positive part in the Big Darby solution, so much so that many consider it a part of the family.

“The Darby becomes very special to you when you work next to it,” Fred says. “You want to protect it and have it there for future generations to enjoy. When I took over the farm from Dad, the only thing he asked me to do with the farm was to leave it better than I found it. I think I’ve done that using conservation tillage and by keeping an eye on the Darby.”

Ken Gordon is a new contributor to the Focus on Agriculture column.