Certified 4R Program Grows With Goal of Protecting the Environment

eKonomics News Team

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Launched in 2014, the 4R certification program aims to maintain agricultural productivity while also improving the quality of watersheds in the Western Lake Erie Basin. Since that time, it has grown to include 34 retail locations that service 1.8 million acres – 36 percent of farmland in the basin.

As the industry’s appreciation for the program and its benefits continues to grow, so does the list of agricultural retailers that are 4R certified in the voluntary program.

Andrew Allman, Executive Director of the Nutrient Stewardship Council, governing body of the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program, says the program is a way to show that the industry of agriculture is being responsible with nutrient applications that are necessary for successful crop growth.

Launching the 4R certified program

Industry leaders started discussions about the 4R certified program after the severe algal bloom in Lake Erie in 2011. The program was launched by a group comprised of agricultural retailers, governmental and non-governmental organizations such as The Fertilizer Institute (TFI), The Nature Conservancy and the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation.

Agricultural retailers wanted to create a program that was geared toward them, as many programs are already tailored to influence best management practices on the farm. As a result, four facilities were audited under a 2013 pilot program to test the process. The 4R certified program was then launched in March 2014 in Perrysburg, Ohio. There were 150 attendees at the launch and 20 retailers signed up to participate in the program. The first retailers were certified in October 2014. Soon after that, more retailers began showing additional interest in the program and it has continued to grow over the past two years.

The certification process

Under the certification process, a retailer is audited for a total of 41 requirements over three years. There are 26 requirements for the first year, nine requirements for the second year and six requirements for the third year.

These requirements are based on the 4R principles of Right source, Right rate, Right time and Right place.

The certification program consists of three key pillars:

  • Training and education of customers and staff
  • Monitoring 4R implementation
  • Recording applications

According to Allman, documentation is a significant part of the certification process. In the first year, an on-site audit is required. Third-party auditors conduct the certification reviews and the retailers pay for the $600 cost to conduct the audit. The audit process takes about ten to thirteen hours (two to three hours for a pre-audit visit, then eight to 10 hours for an on-site audit).

After receiving the report from the auditor, facilities are able to review and put an action plan in place to correct any non-compliance areas within the next year. Any non-compliance requirement will be audited when the facility is reviewed in the following year.

Additional costs for the audit include staff preparations for the audit and implementation of necessary changes in operational procedures and staff training.

It is also important to note that each retailer’s facility independently goes through the auditing process. Moreover, to add to the credibility of the program, there is a decertification process in place.

“However, we hope participants don’t fall into this,” Allman says.

Under the program guidelines, a facility can be decertified if it:

  • Gives false information in the audit process
  • Egregiously violates a standard or law
  • Does not become compliant with corrective action plans as proposed after the audit that gained or maintained its certification
  • Does not pay annual application or auditor fees
  • Changes ownership and new ownership does not wish to comply or participate in the program

Effect of the program

Overall, Allman says the effort shows that agricultural retailers are being responsible with nutrient management, making a true effort to reduce runoff and doing their share to improve water quality.

He says the program has already helped to avoid harsh legislation that could have affected agricultural retailers in Ohio.

The program helps agricultural retailers make improvements and prepare for the future. It also shows agricultural retailers are doing their part to reduce the Lake Erie algal blooms and protect the environment.