ASHLAND — Most high school students have enough on their plates as they juggle school and extra-curricular activities, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Writing and submitting a proposal on their own on how to improve the health of their local watershed is not normally at the top of their to-do list, but that’s exactly what West Holmes sophomore Garrett Houin did, and now he’s been named one of the state’s top-10 finalists in the Caring for Our Watersheds competition.

Houin worked with Ashland Soil and Water Conservation District Technician and Jerome Fork Watershed Coordinator Erica White to develop a proposal that would reduce nutrient loss from farm fields into the streams and rivers of the Mohican Watershed.

“My dad works in precision agriculture, and my mom works for Ashland Soil and Water, so we have a lot of very nerdy conversations in our house about how precision agriculture can be an important tool to address water quality concerns,” Houin said. “I think precision agriculture and the technology is really interesting, and I thought it was a great idea to develop for the Caring for Our Watersheds competition.”

In his research and work with White, Houin discovered that nutrient runoff from farm fields and bacteria from failing septic systems and livestock manure are the biggest threats to water quality in the main stem of the Mohican River watershed, where he lives in Holmes County.

As a result, his proposal included providing farmers in the watershed with cost share to implement new, high-tech computer modeling tools to make the right choices when it comes to nutrient management.

“Through crop modeling applications, producers can determine their return on investment, identify correct nutrient application timing and rates and assess the risk of losing those nutrients,” White said. “All of that saves the producers money on fertilizer costs, which ties into improving water quality.

"The end result is less nutrient runoff when you take a deeper look at timing and rates of applications.”

Houin’s proposal includes 100-percent cost share for farmers to use the Adapt-N nitrogen model as well as Winfield United’s R7 Field Forecasting tools. The tools can work together by providing both an in-depth look at current nitrogen availability in farm fields as well as a forward-facing, predictive model of what nutrient levels will look like weeks and even months into the future.

As a state finalist, he was awarded $1,000 in funds to implement his proposal this year.

The Adapt N model utilizes over 30 years of research from Cornell University on how nitrogen moves spatially through different soil types over time. It factors in how the source of the nitrogen, whether that be from a cover crop, manure application or commercial fertilizer and after taking into account management practices and weather data, it can identify how much nitrogen is actually available to the growing crop, giving producers the information they need to make the best nutrient management decisions possible.

Similarly, Winfield United’s R7 Field Forecasting Tool allows producers to input detailed management data and run different scenarios to determine the best timing, rate and return on investment for nutrient application. This tool uses soil tests, weather, potential yield, growing degree days, tissue tests, etc. to determine how different management decisions and timing are predicted to impact both yield and return on investment.

“Using theses crop modeling tools, producers can see how the four Rs, right rate, right time, right source and right place, can benefit the bottom dollar for farmers, all while managing nutrients to reduce the risk of nutrient runoff,” Houin said. “That’s good news for farmers, good news for the environment, and good news for those of us who live and work in the watershed.”

In fact, Houin was so excited about his proposal that he has worked with West Holmes FFA Advisor Jayme Chenevey to put together an Ag Issues team that will focus on using precision technology to address environmental concerns. The team will even talk about the topic and the cost-share program made available through Caring for Our Watersheds at Ashland SWCD’s Cover Your Assets Conservation Chat on April 21 at 6 p.m. at the Andy Hall farm in Jeromesville.

The Conservation Chat event is free and includes dinner, but reservations are required to ensure enough food is available. Reservations can be made at the district’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/AshandSWCD or by calling the office at 419-281-7645.

Producers interested in learning more about the cost-share opportunities for Houin’s computer modeling project can contact White at Ashland SWCD as well. Adapt-N and Field Forecasting Tool are available to farmers in the Mohican River watershed; the program includes 100 percent cost share for the two modeling tools as well as 100-percent cost share on in-season tissue tests used to calibrate the models.

Houin will compete in the state finals for the Caring for Our Watersheds competition on April 24. More information on the Caring for Our Watersheds program can be found at caringforourwatersheds.com.

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