Faculty Research

  1. Lake Erie is among the bodies of water in Ohio affected by phosphorus runoff from farm fields. (Photo: Getty Images)

    Attracting more farmers to participate in water quality efforts

    Aug 28, 2019

    COLUMBUS, Ohio—Skepticism, more than anything else, is keeping farmers from changing how they apply fertilizer to their fields, according to a behavioral scientist at The Ohio State University.

    Many farmers question whether the conservation measures they are being asked to do, such as applying fertilizer underground rather than on the surfaces of fields, will actually improve water quality in Lake Erie, said Robyn Wilson, a professor in the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES).

    And they also question whether they can carry out those measures on their farms, particularly small farms that typically have less equipment and fewer workers and financial resources than larger farms have, Wilson said.

    “We’ve been spending a lot of time and money educating people about what the problems are, but where’s the evidence that it’s working?” Wilson said. “The thinking has been that if we all just better understand what problems we’re having and what strategies might help those problems, then magically everyone will see the light and suddenly say, ‘Oh, I should be doing this instead.’”

    Experts say the harmful algal blooms plaguing Lake Erie are largely caused by phosphorus runoff from farm fields. Phosphorus, a nutrient needed by crop plants to grow, is present in fertilizers and manure.

    The severity of the lake’s algal bloom this year is expected to be more than double last year’s bloom, but slightly less than the bloom in 2017, according to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report. Persistant rain this past spring is believed to be a major cause for the predicted size of this year’s bloom.

    Among the farmers Wilson has surveyed, 60% to 80% report that they would be willing to adopt new measures to try to reduce fertilizer runoff, but less than half of those surveyed actually do, Wilson said. Wilson studies why that’s happening, in her efforts to change the approach that’s been taken to convince more farmers to participate in sustainable measures.

    “I think we have motivated people who can’t act on their motivation,” Wilson said. “There’s a group of farmers who would be willing to do it, but they’re facing challenges.”

    Those challenges include not only the added expense and effort of adopting conservation measures, but also, lately, the weather.

    More rainfall and more intense rain events in Ohio and across the United States increase the risk of fertilizer running off of a field, into a nearby waterway, and eventually into Lake Erie. Also, rain has delayed the planting and harvesting of Ohio’s cash crops, corn and soybeans. So, farmers report that they run out of time in the growing season to plant cover crops, which are typically sown after harvesting cash crops, Wilson said.

    Similarly, the method of placing fertilizer underground rather than onto the surface of a field, which can significantly reduce fertilizer runoff, comes with challenges as well. The method requires expensive machinery or an attachment to a standard tractor, but that machinery or attachment is not easily available to most small farmers, Wilson said. It also takes twice as long to apply fertilizer underground than at the surface, and farmers might not have the time to do that.

    The most effective way to help farmers overcome these barriers is to work one-on-one with each farmer, going out to the farm, asking which practices they’re using, and suggesting conservation measures tailored to their particular farm operation, Wilson said.

    “This isn’t about a bunch of lazy people who don’t care. They care. They just haven’t found a feasible way to do things,” Wilson said.  

    Also, starting co-ops to rent out machinery for the subsurface placement of fertilizer could trigger more farmers to be willing to try out the method, she said.

    Seeing results is also critical to convincing farmers that the extra time, effort, and expense to put conservation methods in place is worth it. Farmers need to know that any practice they adopt will actually reduce nutrients flowing from their fields into waterways, Wilson said.

    “We don’t give them any feedback. Is your soil health getting better? Is the local water quality getting better? We can’t say. We can just say, ‘Go do this thing.’”

    Results that show farmers that their efforts are actually reducing runoff from their farms would go a long way toward motivating them to continue, Wilson said. The situation is akin to a person who is trying to lose weight by eating better and exercising more, she said. He or she is more likely to stay on the new regimen if he or she can get on a scale regularly and see the pounds dwindle.

    One way to offer such proof of results is to launch small, localized efforts to clean up the nutrients in a stream or lake, generate local support and participation in that effort, and share the results, Wilson said.  

    “People want to know, ‘I did X, and Y happened,’” she said. “They have to see that there’s a direct benefit.”


    (Note to the Media: High resolution images of Robyn Wilson are available)

  2. Faculty member Jeremy Bruskotter is quoted in a recent Time magazine article that discusses rollbacks to the Endangered Species Act and conservation scientists concerns about the impacts on and future of at-risk species.

    Faculty member quoted in Time magazine

    Aug 21, 2019

    School of Environment and Natural Resources faculty member Jeremy Bruskotter is quoted in a recent Time magazine article that discusses rollbacks to the Endangered Species Act and conservation scientists concerns about the impacts on and future of at-risk species.

  3. Ohio State News features research conducted by faculty member Kerry Ard on air pollution disparities.

    Faculty research on air pollution disparities featured

    Aug 13, 2019

    Disease-causing air pollution remains high in pockets of America – particularly those where many low-income and African-American people live, a disparity highlighted in research presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in New York. The nation’s air on the whole has become cleaner in the past 70 years, but those benefits are seen primarily in whiter, higher-income areas, said Kerry Ard, an associate professor of environmental sociology in the School of Environment and Natural Resources at The Ohio State University. Read the full Ohio State News release by Misti Crane featuring Ard's research that examined air pollution and the demographics of the people who lived in 1-kilometer-square areas throughout a six-state region from 1995 through 1998. 

  4. Student researchers (l to r) Liz Ames, Alicia Brunner and Jay Wright with aProthonotary Warbler tagged for the study. (Photo: Christopher Tonra)

    New songbird research featured

    Jun 19, 2019

    Research led by School of Environment and Natural Resources faculty member Christopher Tonra is featured in the June 19 Ohio State News release, "A songbird’s fate hinges on one fragile area." The news release highlights the findings of a study published by Tonra and colleagues in the journal The Condor: Ornithological Applications. Using geolocators the team tracked Prothonotary Warblers (a migratory songbird experiencing population decline) from six breeding sites in North America to determine where they go and what challenges they face during their annual migration.

    Read the full Ohio State News release to learn more about their findings here and the implications for bird and habitat conservation. 

    The Ohio State News release was authored by Jeff Grabmeier. 

  5. An upcoming workshop by CFAES experts will teach you the hows and whys of soil testing. (Photo: Getty Images.)

    Dig into soil health at Feb. 14 workshop

    Jan 29, 2019

    The answers to growing better crops are under your feet if you look. So says Steve Culman, soil fertility specialist at The Ohio State University, who is helping lead an upcoming workshop on how to test your soil. “Soil testing provides a window into the soil, revealing if a plant is likely to see the nutrients it needs to grow and thrive,” said Culman, based at the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences(CFAES). The workshop, called “Digging Into Soil Health: What Tests Can Tell Us About Our Soil,” will be Feb. 14 in Dayton. It’s part of the annual conference of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA), which runs from Feb. 14–16.

  6. Ohio State News:  Nightlights for stream dwellers? No, thanks

    Nightlights for stream dwellers? No, thanks

    Dec 28, 2018

    Artificial light at night isn’t just a health problem for those of us sitting in bed scrolling through Instagram instead of hitting the sack — it hurts entire outdoor ecosystems.  When the critters that live in and around streams and wetlands are settling into their nighttime routines, streetlights and other sources of illumination filter down through the trees and into their habitat, monkeying with the normal state of affairs, according to new research from The Ohio State University.  “This is among the first studies to show that light at night has detrimental effects not just on individual organisms in the environment, but also on communities and ecosystems,” said Mažeika Sullivan, lead author of the study, which appears today (Dec. 19, 2018) in the journal Ecological Applications. 

  7. Ohio State News features research on energy-conservation plans

    Ohio State News features research on energy-conservation plans

    Dec 4, 2018

    Ohio State News features new research by School of Environment and Natural Resources faculty member Nicole Sintov and post-doctoral researcher Lee White on utility customers and their decisions to continue to participate in energy-conservation plans.  The research published this month in the journal Nature Energy finds that decisions to stay in time-of-use rate energy programs among utility customers in the southwestern United States is based more on perceptions about savings versus actual savings.

    Read more about the study and findings in the Ohio State News story written by Misti Crane.

  8. A new study in northwest Ohio’s Maumee River watershed will look closely at farm fields with elevated phosphorus. The aim: improve Lake Erie’s water quality while maintaining yields of crops. (Photo: Getty Images.)

    New Study Will Track Ways to Cut Runoff from Elevated Phosphorus Fields

    Nov 13, 2018

    Some farm fields in northwest Ohio’s Maumee River watershed have more phosphorus than their crops can use. Called “elevated phosphorus fields,” such fields may be at higher risk of contributing to Lake Erie’s harmful algal blooms. That’s the premise of a new five-year, $5 million study that hopes to learn about those fields and lower that risk by creating new public-private partnerships.

  9. New study finds drought-resistant native plant can irrigate food crops

    Nov 7, 2018

    The trick to boosting crops in drought-prone, food-insecure areas of West Africa could be a ubiquitous native shrub that persists in the toughest of growing conditions.  Growing these shrubs side-by-side with the food crop millet increased millet production by more than 900 percent, according to a new study published in the journal Frontiers in Environmental Science. A couple of decades have passed since Richard Dick, a soil scientist now at Ohio State, was traveling through rural Senegal in West Africa and noticed low-lying shrubs that seemed to be doing fine despite arid conditions that had wiped out most other vegetation in farmers’ fields.  Read more about this study in the Ohio State News story written by Misti Crane.

  10. SENR faculty member Kerry Ard to discuss air quality at 2018 MORPC Sustainability Summit.

    Faculty Member to Discuss Air Quality at Sustainability Summit

    Oct 23, 2018

    Kerry Ard, assistant professor of evironmental and natural resource sociology in the School of Environment and Natural Resources will speak at this week's  Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission's (MORPC) 2018 Summit on Sustainability  The Summit is MORPC’s signature environmental conference, bringing hundreds of community leaders together to explore and share sustainable solutions.