The USDA is officially closing its Agricultural Research Service North Appalachian Experimental Watershed Lab in Coshocton County, Ohio as part of the agency's shuttering of 259 domestic offices, facilities and labs across the country.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack made the announcement Jan. 9 during the American Farm Bureau Federation annual meeting in Hawaii. In addition to Coshocton, other research facilities closing include locations in Fairbanks, Alaska; Shafter, Calif.; Brooksville, Fla.; Watkinsville, Ga.; Lane, Okla.; Winston, S.C.; Weslaco, Texas; and Beaver, W.Va.

“The USDA, like families and businesses across the country, cannot continue to operate like we did 50 years ago,” said Vilsack. “We must innovate, modernize, and be better stewards of the taxpayers’ dollars.”

“The department is finding significant savings by consolidating more than 200 offices across the country,” he said.

Some 13 jobs will be lost by the Coshocton lab closure, as well as some valuable research.

Bill Haddad, a consultant who has lobbied for no-till farming practices since he learned about them in 1969, said Coshocton was used to launch the no-till practice across the country.

"I'm not sure why on God's green Earth they chose that facility to close when there are other things that could have been closed that wouldn't be missed," Haddad told the Times Recorder in Zanesville, Ohio.

The North Appalachian Experimental Watershed was one of the first developed in the early 1930s with the enactment of the Soil Conservation Act. Its mission was to study problems and develop methods of conserving soil and water resources.

The 2011 operating budget for the NAEW was $1.3 million, according to information provided by the USDA in 2011. Of that, about $100,000 was spent at local vendors for material such as lumber or pipe, hardware and office supplies, Hays said. In addition to its annual operating budget, the facility brought in grants and other outside resources to fund research projects.

Sitting on 1,050-acre site in White Eyes Township, the research done went far afield to places such as Texas, Arizona, Nevada, Maryland, Washington and Beijing. Experts in the field of agriculture say closing the facility will result in a loss that can't be replaced.

"People don't realize the importance of the station; there's not any other facility like it," Haddad said.

He worked for a company that produced herbicides and was interested in the process that slowed soil erosion yet needed weed control. The Knox County resident quickly learned of the NAEW after he was transferred to Ohio in 1973 and since has taken hundreds of visitors to the station.

Tina Lust, chairwoman of the Ohio Certified Crop Adviser Program, toured the facility with a group of her peers in 2011.

"It was a great learning lab," she said. "There's just a wealth of information that can't be duplicated anywhere else."

No-Tiller Weighs In

Local farmer Gerald Finlay agrees. The 75-year-old controlled environment that yields accurate information to develop farm and water quality practices is irreplaceable, he said.

"It was small investment of public money and the benefits are quite great," Finlay said.
Resulting research

The NAEW became involved in no-till research in the early 1960s, and one almost 40-acre site on the station has been in no-till farming since then.

While it's widely practiced for erosion control, Finlay said it also benefits in water control by leaving earthworms undisturbed. This information has been studied by the soil scientists at NAEW.

"You can see the difference, water doesn't lay in pools because it's able to travel through the worm burrows into the ground," Finlay said.

The Finlays incorporate no-till methods into 50 percent of their farming practices. Crops are rotated on the 600 acres they plant, so one year soybeans are planted using no-till practices, then the following year corn is planted using a minimum-till method.

"It's cut the cost of planting by about 50 percent," Finlay said.

The soil in no-till at NAEW also has shown a significant increase in carbon sequestering. Carbon capture and storage is important in the study of climate change, illustrating how vegetation takes carbon from the atmosphere and stores it in the soil.

While no-till practices have become common in the past 40 years, Haddad said research at NAEW still is pertinent today.

The original objectives were to address problems of flooding and erosion from farmland.

However, during the past 40 years, pesticide and nutrient movement in runoff from fields and into groundwater have become important new issues for which the NAEW has tested management practices.

"In today's world water quality is a big issue," he said. "Look at the situation at Grand Lake St. Mary's. Their (NAEW) research is valuable information to address that situation."

Ongoing research

What's happening or has happened at NAEW ties in with some of the issues that need addressed today, Lust said.

"We're faced now with some of the these water quality issues and unanswered questions," she said. "That place could have helped with the reasoning. Gov. Kasich has been urging us to find the solution, how can we when those types of facilities are lost?"

The goal of a certified crop adviser is to help clients such as farmers become better stewards of the environment and still make a profit.

Phosphorus in streams and lakes is attributed to runoff containing animal waste and has been identified as a contributor to a blue-green algae capable of producing toxins that had Ohio's largest inland lake — Grand Lake St. Mary's in Augulaize and Mercer counties — post warnings to swimmers and recreational boaters a couple of years ago.

Scientists from NAEW attended an informational forum and presented the concept of using a filter sock filled with compost developed at the facility.

In 2011, it also was invited to become part of one of the largest USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture projects ever awarded. The project was to investigate adaptation and mitigation of corn-production systems because of climate change.

Weather data from the NAEW since 1940 would be used for a preliminary look at the possible climate change in Coshocton County.

The small watersheds, lysimeters and NAEW database are unique resources that could be used to study the problem. The NAEW was part of a consortium of about 12 universities made up of 40 scientists. As part of the project, the NAEW was to investigate sustainable agricultural practices, such as organic agriculture.

USDA Coshocton labThe USDA's North Appalachian Experimental Watershed Lab in Coshocton County, Ohio, is officially closing due to the agency's budget cuts. (Photo/Zanesville Times Recorder)

The NAEW has done many things to support the work of soil and water conservation not only in Coshocton, but across Ohio, said Deb Bigelow, district administrator for Coshocton Soil and Water Conservation District.

As an example, NAEW recently was approached about developing a cost-effective way for the U.S. Air Force to deal with potential groundwater contamination. An envirotranspiration landfill cover uses vegetation to consume water stored in a soil reservoir, and when installed correctly, reduces the risk of contaminants leaching through the soil into the groundwater.

This was proven in Coshocton by using one of the facility's ground lysimeters.

"Information that was developed there is going to be more important to the future than it was in the past," Haddad said.

While SWCD works with the community to install practices to protect natural resources, the research facility has impacted farmers not only in Coshocton County but throughout our state and beyond, Bigelow said.

"Much of the farming community served by Coshocton Soil and Water Conservation District put conservation practices to use that were developed and proven at the Experimental Watershed," Bigelow said.

In addition to the no-till studies, erosion control studies have highlighted the effectiveness of contour strips, nutrient management and cover crop research have also been important to area farmers, she said.

"Some of the historical data they compiled cannot be found anywhere else," Bigelow said.