GALENA, Ohio — Housing development looms just on the other side of the fences of Acorn Farms, a 24-year-old wholesale container nursery that has seen crop fields and llama farms literally transformed overnight into the bustling urbanization the area has quickly become.
And little did General Manager Jerry Fultz know that a water management system installed after the drought of 1988 to simply conserve water would be the key to being more environmentally friendly with the nursery's new neighbors.
"We looked at the system after the drought of 1988 so we would never again run into a shortage of water. Then houses just started being built up around us. We knew it was coming, but just didn't realize it would happen so fast," said Fultz. "So we determined that we'd run into problems or create problems if we weren't environmentally proactive. And this water management system is helping us to be better environmental stewards."
The system — a series of ponds and subterranean pumps — captures and recycles the water the nursery uses to irrigate its products, occasionally giving back to and borrowing water from Alum Creek, a water resource that supplies part of Columbus and Westerville. The capture/recycle system, which ensures that the nursery remains self-contained regarding water usage, also helps keep Alum Creek free of pesticides, herbicides or other chemicals that could potentially run-off from the nursery grounds.
The design has won Acorn Farms numerous environmental awards over the years, and it came to the rescue for the nursery when part of the facility burned in 1999 and exposed some chemicals to the nursery grounds.
"The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) came out and tested the water in Alum Creek time and time again and could not find substantive levels of chemicals in Alum Creek," said Fultz. "If it hadn't been for the capture/recycle system we had in place, we probably would have been in a serious environmental situation."
At a time when states, like California, Maryland, and Oregon, are enacting no run-off laws, taking a pro-active stance to environmental issues is becoming more important — especially in states like Ohio where such laws do not exist.
But why focus on nurseries? According to Daniel Struve, an Ohio State University horticulturist, some irrigation methods are inefficient. He estimates that the total amount of water applied to non-target areas using overhead irrigation can be as high as 70 percent, depending on the number of containers per acre, the surface area covered by those containers, container size, the number of irrigation days and the amount of water applied at each irrigation event.
"In Ohio, a nursery may irrigate 100 days during the growing season, typically applying an inch of water per day," said Struve. "Taking the other factors into consideration, conservatively speaking, almost 2 million gallons of water are applied to non-target areas per acre per season."
Increasing environmental awareness has led to nursery producers in other states to help write legislation to reduce nursery run-off. Additionally, some states, like Florida, are facing water issues and nurseries are operating on water budgets. Other states, like California, Oklahoma and Texas, face water quality problems because of the high alkalinity in their water sources.
In response to such issues, nurseries are making changes to their management methods, by installing capture/recycle systems and implementing new ways of applying fertilizers.
"Good advice is to design container nurseries with water capture and recycling systems," said Struve. "Not only is it environmentally friendly, but it's cheaper to recycle water than it is to pump additional water out of wells."
The irrigation systems at Acorn Farms have the maximum capacity to pump 2,300 gallons of water an hour over 150 acres of land. But with the capture/recycle water management system, 200,000 to 300,000 gallons of water is recycled per day.
"We want to be self-contained with this system, so that we are not relying on other resources for water. We know that Alum Creek is a finite resource and that it has other purposes as well," said Fultz. "With the capture/recycle system we have a continued water source that also saves us money. By recapturing a significant amount of water and putting it right back into our fields, it's saving us about the cost of one pumping cycle."
Nurseries, like Acorn Farms, which rely on overhead irrigation, are also using drip irrigation under certain circumstances to help save water. Additionally, nurseries are also changing the way they apply fertilizers: as slow-release products that are applied directly to the container surface. New formulations of controlled release fertilizers are being developed to match fertilizer release rates with plant demand, thus increasing fertilizer efficiency.
"If drip or micro-irrigation is used, no water is applied to the foliage, and thus pesticides are not washed off the crop plants. If nursery managers can reduce pesticide applications, then everyone benefits," said Struve. "There are reduced costs to the producers and the likelihood of environment damage is reduced. Ohio nursery managers are proactive with regard to minimizing environmental impacts of nursery production. Their goal is limit run-off — to zero if possible."
Struve said that most nurseries already have capture/recycle systems.
"The good thing is most nursery managers are environmental stewards. They are working hard to reduce the amount of run-off from nursery operations," said Struve. Nursery managers realize that pro- active responses to environmental issues are less expensive that trying to make changes after newly legislated governmental regulations go into effect. Also, most nursery managers truly care about environmental quality; their products are Mother Nature's natural environmental cleansers."
Fultz is pleased that his schooling in biology and natural resources helped prepare him for tackling such environmental issues, but, looking across the fence at new housing developments, he wonders what environmental problems will arise with the urbanization.
"The continued development of the valley concerns me. The soil will change; all of this asphalt and concrete will have an impact. With more people moving into the area, the water quality of Alum Creek will change," said Fultz. "And I'm constantly asking myself, what can we, as a nursery business, do to protect ourselves in the area being flooded by all this development?"