Farmers v. Chesapeake Bay, Part III

Do farmers really want to stop the Chesapeake Bay cleanup in its tracks?

By any measure, Will Morrow has been a good steward of the land. Raising livestock in northern Frederick County, he has happily taken measures to protect Tom's Creek, the Monocacy River tributary that runs along his land, planting cover crops, installing stream buffers and otherwise investing in sustainable agriculture. So it frustrates him to hear that the American Farm Bureau Federation is taking its crusade against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Chesapeake Bay cleanup all the way to the Supreme Court.

"I think it's ridiculous," the 49-year-old says. "The farmers in my community aren't fighting the EPA. I don't understand why the Farm Bureau works so hard for the right to pollute. They are on the wrong side of history."

It's likely a lot of small and medium-sized family farmers in the Mid-Atlantic were just as incensed to hear the news earlier this month that despite losing twice in lower federal courts, the AFBF, other agriculture groups and the National Association of Home Builders want the nation's highest court to strike down the so-called "blueprint" to restore the Chesapeake Bay through the EPA-enforced TMDL or "total maximum daily load" that regulates the amount of nutrients and other pollutants allowed in local waterways.

That program offers the region's best chance of cleaning up the bay because it enables the EPA to hold everyone's feet to the fire. Without it, Maryland's commitment to reduce pollutants like excess nitrogen and phosphorus that lead to anoxic conditions and "dead zones" in areas that once teamed with rockfish, oysters and crabs would be rendered futile if Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware, New York and the District of Columbia declined to take similar action.

That farmers are a major contributor to the bay's woes isn't in any serious dispute, at least not among scientists. Farms represent about one-quarter of the land in the watershed but they are the single greatest source of nutrient and sediment pollution, according to the EPA, accounting for 42 percent of the nitrogen, 58 percent of the phosphorus and 58 percent of the sediment that winds up in the Chesapeake Bay. Poor irrigation practices, destructive tilling of soil, and excess fertilizer and pesticide use are all part of the problem. Even so, many farmers have made profound changes in how they run their operations, often voluntarily, to reduce water pollution. But that's all for naught if other polluters in the watershed — whether they are cities that lack proper stormwater controls or underperforming regional sewage treatment plants or farmers spreading manure on fields already saturated with phosphorus — don't do the same.

No one wants to vilify farmers. They are not only an essential part of our economy but nurturers of life. Good luck picking up tomorrow's dinner without them. But they can't be held exempt from cleanup efforts — at least not if anyone is serious about reducing the amount of pollution pouring into the Chesapeake Bay. That the Maryland Farm Bureau continues to oppose the TMDL says much more about the clout of large-scale "factory" farming like Eastern Shore poultry with its massive waste disposal problem than it does about mom-and-pop operators the organization so often purports to represent.

Admittedly, the EPA makes a convenient scapegoat for politically conservative politicians who carry water for the large agribusiness operators. They can yell about government overreach or regulations that are "holding back" the economy and job growth in agriculture. But that ignores the billions of dollars in economic activity represented by the Chesapeake Bay in tourism, in real estate property values and in its fisheries and seafood. How will those tens of thousands of jobs be protected if the water quality is not?

Mr. Morrow isn't a member of the Maryland Farm Bureau, at least not in recent years. He says he was involved for a time but lost interest in an organization that seemed more concerned about property rights or non-farming issues like drilling for oil in the Arctic Circle than in the concerns of a small farmer — like how he has to warn every new employee and visitor not to eat fish from Tom's Creek because it isn't safe. The organization's recent choice to take the fight against the TMDL all the way to the Supreme Court only confirms his view.

"Good stewards of the land don't fight for the right to pollute," he says. "Every small and medium sized farmer I know wants clean water. We all have streams. We want people to be able to swim in those streams from a tire on a rope hanging from a tree or catch trout and eat fish — and right now, you can't."

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