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Two unheralded heroes of the bay

AgricultureChemical IndustryEnvironmental PollutionFertilizerColleges and Universities

I got a nice award recently — for environmental leadership, the inscription read — really, for just doing work I was paid for and that I often confused with fun.

I've always been a little uncomfortable with awards. I got in trouble as editor of a military newspaper in the 1960s when I editorialized that medals were so common that if you didn't get one, it meant you must have screwed up. I was forced to cut my hair, shine my shoes and iron my uniform, all for a two-minute dressing down by the commanding officer (but of course I still received my Good Conduct Medal when I got out).

Nowadays, my misgiving with awards is that there are so many environmental stalwarts out there who deserve recognition but seldom get it.

In that vein, I have been thinking lately about Russ Brinsfield and Ken Staver. Given what they have done for the Chesapeake Bay, they are surely two of the most un-awarded folks there are.

Both are farmers and agricultural scientists in Maryland. And both are something more unusual — farmers and agricultural scientists who were willing, early on in the Chesapeake restoration, to cross battle lines and work with ecologists and environmentalists.

And battle lines there were, and to a degree still are. The sentiment in the ag community when the restoration was beginning in the late 1970s was that you shouldn't even link farming to water pollution.

We've come a way from that mind-set. No one argues that runoff from agriculture isn't the bay's single biggest source of polluting nutrients — in large part because it's the biggest human use of lands that drain to the Chesapeake Bay.

Even now, too many agricultural officials and scientists aren't facing up to our toughest issues, such as what to do with large excesses of animal manure in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Virginia.

But Maryland farmers have made huge progress. This winter they will be planting cover crops across about half a million acres. Grown without fertilizer, these crops have one major purpose — to suck up excess fertilizer left after the fall harvest before it makes its way in subsurface runoff into the Chesapeake.

Farmers in Maryland will thus keep an estimated 2.6 million pounds of polluting fertilizer out of the water. That's significant when one considers that the total nutrient reduction needed, from all sources in all six states in the bay watershed, to meet 2025 goals is in the neighborhood of 80 million pounds.

It's a major achievement, and it comes from what has been perhaps the most difficult part of the puzzle, the runoff from millions of acres of cropland across 64,000 square miles. And it would not have happened without Messrs. Brinsfield and Staver, whose science for many years was an uncomfortable fit within their own communities of farmers and ag officials.

One key to their accomplishment was working early in their academic careers with bay ecologists at the University of Maryland's Horn Point lab, where researchers were trying to understand what was killing the bay's underwater grasses.

Mr. Staver convinced his professors there — none of whom had been looking at the bay when it was cleaner — that the slime coating the underwater grasses he was examining was not normal. Fueled by fertilizers from farms and sewage, it was blocking vital light from the grasses.

Mr. Brinsfield recalled how his dad planted winter crops on their dairy farm in Dorchester County to feed cows and stop soil erosion. They didn't fertilize it, and its bright green growth meant, Mr. Brinsfield realized decades later, that it was pulling leftover fertilizers from the soil.

Beginning in 1984, the two began a classic series of studies on lands of the university's Wye Research and Education Center that documented how cover crops could pull as much as 40 percent of the leftover nitrogen fertilizer out of farm fields before it escaped to degrade rivers and the bay.

Ironically, the work highlighted just how fundamentally "leaky" fertilizers were, even on a well-managed farm. Their research was not initially what one would call a career booster within the university's College of Agriculture.

But cover cropping is now an established practice in Maryland, although not nearly so well in other bay states. Mr. Brinsfield heads the Hughes Center for Agro-Ecology, which pursues the noble task of marrying farming and environmental protection. Mr. Staver continues to do research in a similar vein at the Wye center.

Both still run their own farms, and both continue to publish and speak forthrightly about where farms still need major improvements to meet clean water goals.

To me, Russ Brinsfield and Ken Staver exemplify the very best of science: combining rigorous research, hands-on experience and a passion for their subject — and a willingness to speak honestly about it all.

Tom Horton, a former longtime writer for The Sun, is the author of six books about the Chesapeake Bay. This article is distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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