Stories in Ohio

Sustainable Agriculture in Ohio

Aerial view of sunrise at farm.
Sustainable Farming in Ohio Farming with nature in mind can help us achieve our climate and biodiversity goals. © Carl Schlabach

The Nature Conservancy is working toward a more sustainable and equitable food system for all.

Food and agriculture are Ohio’s top industries, employing one out every seven people and with a footprint that covers more than half the state. The lands that Ohio farmers steward today support a diversity of fruits, vegetables, grains and livestock, with more than 200 types of crops grown or raised in the state. From the earliest Indigenous peoples who domesticated plants like squash and sunflower and developed farming methods still used today, our connection to food—including how and where it is produced—has shaped Ohio’s culture and identity.

Yet, the agricultural sector is at a crossroads. The climate is changing, affecting the length of farming seasons, reducing global food harvests and disrupting supply chains. At the same time, conventional farming practices have led to steep greenhouse gas emissions, impacts to natural areas and the biodiversity they support. But with the global population expected to reach 10 billion by 2050, there is increased pressure on working lands to do even more.

The good news? A more equitable and sustainable food system is in reach.

Here in Ohio, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is working with farmers who produce much of the country's food, fuel and fiber in ways that achieve positive results for nature, communities and the climate. And what's more: they're showing how farming can remain profitable and viable for generations to come. Learn more about regenerative farming strategies and benefits using the tabs below. 

What is Regenerative Farming?

Regenerative food production is one of the most powerful solutions the world has to reverse the interconnected crises of climate change and species loss.

Snapshot of Ohio Agriculture

  • 77,000

    Number of farms in Ohio

  • 90%

    Percentage of Ohio farms managed by families or individuals

  • $124B

    Agriculture's contribution to Ohio's economy

  • 13.9M

    Number of acres of farmland in Ohio

Regenerating Soil on Farms

TNC supports farmers shifting to management systems that work in harmony with nature to restore and protect the soil’s long-term health. Regenerative farm systems use cover crops and diverse crop rotations to cover bare soils and provide a living root in the soil for all or much of the year. They also utilize the 4Rs of nutrient stewardship and rotational grazing to manage fertilizer and manure and reduce or eliminate tilling the soil. The benefits of these practices include increased profits through sustained or better yields with fewer inputs, enhancing the soil’s ability to store water, nutrients and carbon and improving the farm’s overall resilience to climate change.

Farmers For Soil Health Program Helps Bolster Cover Crop Adoption

TNC Ohio is teaming up with partners, including Ohio Soybean Council, Ohio Corn, Wheat Growers Association and Ohio Agribusiness Association, to provide technical assistance to help Ohio corn and soybean producers access funding to grow 65,000 acres of cover crops by 2027.

Farmer Les Seiler demonstrates healthy soil.
Soil Health Farmer Les Seiler demonstrates healthy soil. © David Ike
Farmer Allison Grimm holds up crop roots to show good soil health.
Soil Health Farmer Allison Grimm shows healthy soils on her farm. © David Ike
Soil Health Farmer Les Seiler demonstrates healthy soil. © David Ike
Soil Health Farmer Allison Grimm shows healthy soils on her farm. © David Ike

Achieving this shift across a large landscape means many farmers and their trusted advisors must rethink their farming operations. Making such changes requires patience, trust and resources, which is why TNC is helping farmers and their advisors adopt these practices in Ohio and beyond.

Farmer Advocate Brandon Johnson.
Farmer Advocate Farmer Advocate Brandon Johnson helps teach other farmers about sustainable agriculture practices that can help safeguard soil health and protect water quality. © David Ike

Farmers Lead Change by Learning from One Another

In 2020, TNC and a farmer-led advisory team developed and launched an innovative, peer learning network called Farmer Advocates for Conservation to create a space where farmers could learn from one another. Together, we created a 36-hour curriculum focused on elevating soil health and paid farmers to offer support to their peers to do the same.

To date, Farmer Advocates manage 21,400 acres and have connected with thousands of other farmers through outreach. They provide what farmers have asked for: the opportunity to learn from each other in ways that fit their schedules and learning styles.

Our goal is to help as many farmers as possible experience the benefits of switching to a system that prioritizes soil health and sustainability, and connect them to the resources they need, including other farmers, to begin their own journeys in regenerative agriculture.

Impact of Farmer Advocates Program in Ohio

  • 20

    Number of Farmer Advocates for Conservation

  • 7,243

    Farmers reached through programming

  • 657,642

    Number of acres influenced through outreach

  • 808,071

    Indirect contacts through articles, social media and videos

Managing Water on Farms

Nutrients are an essential part of crop production. But after a heavy rain, nutrients that should stay on the farm can be washed away downstream, leading to harmful algal blooms that are toxic to people and wildlife.

Edge-of-Field Practices

Incorporating the benefits of nature adjacent to farms is important. Edge-of-field solutions mimic natural areas and structures that capture, store and filter water and create a buffer that helps protect farms from flooding while reducing the amount of soil and nutrients that farmers lose from their fields after heavy rains.

Man stands next to water structure on ag field.
Grassed buffer strip along side ag fields.
Muddy stream runs through forested corridor.
Woman stands in ditch alongside ag field.
Farmer Les Seiler shows vegetated buffer on his farm.

Two-stage ditches, controlled drainage structures, phosphorus removal filters, cascading waterways, prairie strips and vegetative buffers are all examples of edge-of-field solutions. Strategically introducing one or more of these into a landscape can help farmers better withstand climate change-related impacts of flooding and drought and improve field conditions to support food production. This provides system-wide benefits. Edge-of-field practices help recharge waterways, reduce nutrient loss, protect the carbon stored in soil and create wildlife habitat.

Elevated Phosphorus (2:09) Incorporating water treatment practices—such as two-stage ditches—at the farm’s edge can help capture, store and filter nutrients from water before it flows downstream.

Public Private Partnerships: Work with Trusted Farm Advisors

TNC is working with The Ohio State University and the Ohio 4R Nutrient Stewardship Council to create public-private partnerships between conservation professionals and 4R-certified agribusinesses. We work with farmers to conduct soil testing and identify farms with high phosphorus levels, which may be at a greater risk for nutrient loss. Our goal is to pair 4R nutrient stewardship with edge-of-field practices to manage and treat phosphorus before it leaves the farm.

Aerial view of harmful algal bloom in Western Lake Erie Basin.
Algal Bloom Western Lake Erie Basin © NASA

At 13 study sites throughout the Western Lake Erie Basin, we are monitoring the performance of three types of edge-of field-treatments: nutrient reduction wetlands, controlled drainage structures and phosphorus removal filters. The 5-year project also involves social science research to understand the motivations of farmers and their advisors in addressing farm fields with high phosphorus levels. Through modeling, we hope to better understand these fields’ contributions to algal blooms in Lake Erie and work with agronomic advisors to help their customers identify a suite of solutions to reducing phosphorus loss.

Farmer Jason Ward stands next to wetland on his farm.
Wetlands Natural infrastructure like wetlands can help filter nutrients from water while providing critical habitat for wildlife. © David Ike

Rebuilding Ohio’s Natural Infrastructure

Healthy natural areas support critical functions throughout the watershed. By restoring wetlands, floodplains and stream corridors in places that frequently flood or hold water, we can help naturally slow down and filter water before it enters our streams and rivers. A vast array of wildlife also depends on these areas, including birds, small mammals, reptiles and amphibians, and give back to us in many ways, from pollination and pest management to recreation.

Sandhill crane wetland.
Sandhill Crane Wetlands Restoring natural infrastructure like Sandhill Crane Wetlands can help restore the landscape's ability to filter nutrients and sediment from water before it reaches Lake Erie. © Alexis McCarter/TNC

Sandhill Crane Restoration

In 2022, TNC restored nearly 300 acres of frequently flooded, marginal cropland in northwest Ohio. The land was replanted with emergent marsh, twig-rush wet prairie, oak savanna and sand barren communities—native habitats that characterize the Oak Openings Region. The restored area will reduce nutrient runoff into nearby streams and expand and connect natural areas that support an abundance of species, including sandhill cranes.

This exciting project is one of many that TNC and partners are implementing to restore 23,000 acres of wetlands, floodplains and stream corridors throughout Ohio. These nature-based solutions will not only help improve Ohio’s water quality but support a stunning array of biodiversity.

Supporting a More Equitable Food System

Importantly, TNC acknowledges that we need to build trust and address historical racism and inequities in agriculture as well as past harms caused by our actions. While we don’t have all the answers, we believe that we can begin by working in partnerships across all sectors of the food system to remove systemic barriers facing young and first-generation farmers and black, Indigenous and farmers of color.

Diversifying Our Food System

By raising funds, identifying and administering public and private grants, leveraging our access and relationships with policy and decision-makers and amplifying the work of others though marketing and communications, we are supporting partners to help stimulate systemic change throughout the food system.

Beekeeper stands next to an active beehive.
Agraria Center Regenerative Farming Fellows in farm field.
Agraria Center Regenerative Farming Fellows in hoop house.
Two farmers examine plant.
Farmer Ann Brandt with her turkeys.

Regenerative Farmer Fellowship Program

In 2021, TNC partnered with Agraria Center for Regenerative Practice and Central State University to launch an on-farm training program for small-scale, historically underserved growers. In its first year, the program trained six fellows using regenerative agriculture practices and building local business enterprises. The fellows represented both rural and urban growing sites, four being in areas considered food deserts by the USDA. TNC contributed to the partnership by securing public and private grant support to fund the program in its first year and support paid fellowships and program expansion in its second.


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