KEYMAR — Travis Trout’s father and grandfather dairy-farmed a pair of properties in Keymar from 1965 until 2001.
“Once the market went down, they got out of that and started growing crops,” said Trout.
However, in 2013, the family was struck by tragedy. Trout’s father died in a farming accident. It could’ve spelled the end of the family farm. Trout said his mom and sister wanted to sell the property.
But Trout, in his early 20s at the time, had other ideas. He wanted to keep the farm. So he purchased it from his mother and sister.
“I feel like I’m carrying on our family’s legacy,” the 25-year-old told the Times.
The farm he inherited was lined with row crops. Trout had to have a vision.
“I just started adding cattle like two years ago,” Trout said, explaining that he wants to continue along that trajectory, transforming the property that once exclusively yielded corn and bean harvests to an all-cattle operation.
Trout’s vision recently received a big boost from an unlikely partner — one that found mutual benefit in improving Trout’s farm.
Little Pipe Creek runs through the 147-acre property. The creek flows into the Monocacy River, which branches off the Potomac River, one of the largest of the 150 rivers that flow into the Chesapeake Bay.
Trout’s cattle roam the property freely, crossing the stream at will and depositing their waste — urine and manure — directly in the flowing water. Like other farmers, he deploys fertilizer to boost crop production. But when it rains, fertilizer, manure and pesticides — rich with nitrogen and phosphorus — wash into streams and into the network of waterways that flow into the Chesapeake Bay.
Agricultural runoff is one of the chief contributors of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution. High nitrogen and phosphorus levels create idyllic conditions for harmful algae blooms in the Bay. Algae blooms block sunlight to underwater grasses, consume oxygen needed by fish and interfere with shellfish feeding habits, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
The runoff, however, is not only detrimental to the North America’s largest estuary. The water coming off Trout’s crop fields sweeps away topsoil.
“You look at the water that comes off the farm and there’s tons of topsoil you can lose by that, it’s astonishing,” he said. “Any time you’re losing topsoil it’s detrimental. … It’s like your bread and butter. You lose that and your [crop] production will go down.”
Trout is ineligible for the Natural Resources Conservation Service and state-sponsored agriculture best practice cost share program’s stream-buffer funds. The cost-share is covering a built-to-spec fence that keeps cattle away from the stream — his property is already in a permanent agriculture easement with the county.
Mobilizing the troops and the trees
Enter the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving, and currently restoring, the estuary.
Saturday, Oct. 6 the foundation and an army of volunteers planted some 1,200 saplings along the creek running through Trout’s property. The stream-side forest, known as a riparian buffer, will take up about 10 acres of land and border about a mile of Little Pipe Creek, said Rob Schnabel, the restoration scientist at CBF in charge of this initiative.
“The newly planted trees will function as a sponge to reduce downstream flooding while also filtering any sediment pollution coming off the corn fields during rain events,” Schnabel said.
A cattle fence will augment the saplings, offering an instant water quality boost, he said. And as the trees mature, their roots form an underground web, which filters out pollutants before they reach the stream. Grant money from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency funded the fence, which was erected a day before the en masse tree planting.
“Once the trees get big they take up — through evapotranspiration — water coming through the tree and out through the leaves and into the atmosphere, over 100 gallons per day,” Schnabel said. “That’s just the amount of water that’s actually going back up through the tree and into the atmosphere … probably 10 times that amount is going through the root channels down in the ground, water on the surface will percolate down through the roots to recharge groundwater and aquifers.”
Volunteers from Carroll and counties across Maryland responded in droves Saturday, as Schnabel and representatives from other agencies coordinated the effort. By the time volunteers arrived around 9 a.m. Trout had drilled holes every couple of yards for trees and shrubs to be planted. The stream-side divots were marked with flags — white for trees or pink for shrubs.
And after a Schnabel briefing and tree-planting tutorial from David Tanza, CBF’s Maryland outreach manager, it was time for volunteers to get their hands dirty.
Margarita Lidstrom, of Frederick, has become a pro tree planter, having volunteered with her husband at such events for 10-plus years. She wants more people to get involved. She touted the environmental benefits, and the long-term goal of having strictly pasture-fed beef.
“Sometimes we come back to the places we’ve [planted],” she said. “You can really see the difference in creeks and wildlife.”
Rich Mason, a wildlife biologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, helped Saturday. He described that an almost immediate wildlife boost could be expected after a project of this magnitude.
“These little ribbons of forest along the streams are so important,” Mason told volunteers. “As soon as we leave wildlife will come and inhabit it.”
At Trout’s farm, Mason explained, a host of birds, reptiles, amphibians and pollinators will embed themselves.
Volunteers came from all walks.
“They heard from the school the opportunity to earn service hours,” said Faith Washington, who stood over a sapling flanked by her two children, Amira, 13, and Grant, 12. They participated not just for service hours, but “to help the environment, which we’re very interested in.”
Farther down by the stream was a group of three teenage girls, struggling to break a tree from its plastic container that supported its young roots.
Savannah Sitler, Khelsa Connolly and Caroline Etherton, all 17 and students at Linganore High School in Frederick, were caked in mud from the damp stream-side ground.
“Service hours are one of the incentives,” Sitler said, her knees nestled in the dirt. “[And] we all love trees.”
The three girls were part of the Science National Honors Society. They’re all taking AP Biology, Etherton said. But “I’ve learned more about [riparian forest] today than in class so far.”
Trout recognizes the environmental benefit of the project. He knew that from the get-go.
He said the project needed to be done, as he had to mitigate erosion to meet environmental regulations, but he wasn’t sure if he wanted to go big.
“At first I wanted to try and do the bare minimum,” he said. “But then I started thinking about what the most benefit would be, you know, to put the trees back in and having a buffer around the stream.”
“We’ve been doing this reforestation-type work, farm stewardship work for about 16 years now, throughout the Upper Potomac watershed,” Schnabel said.
Agriculture runoff accounts for 40 percent of the nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution that ends up in the bay, Schnabel explained. Carroll County, rich with farmland, has been a focus area for CBF’s efforts for some time, he added.
There are thousands of acres of stream-side land that are devoid of forest in Carroll, Schnabel said, referencing a state-sponsored geographic study. “Plus there’s still plenty of areas where cattle are in streams and they shouldn’t be. A law was passed in 2014 not to have cattle in streams, and there’s still people who have cattle in streams.
“That needs to be fixed.”
CBF, along with the county and state, over the summer set a goal of reducing thousands of pounds of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution by restoring more than 300 acres of forest buffer in Carroll. Saturday, volunteers and workers conquered 10 of those acres.
For each acre of production that forest takes up, CBF is giving Trout $1,000 for other conservation efforts on the farm. Trout said he’ll use that money and cost-share funds to fence in his entire property. He’ll also use the money to add gutters to his massive barn — the roof of which, Schnabel estimated, is almost an acre. The gutters will help direct runoff from the barn away from the stream.
Out of all the best-management agriculture practices, stream fencing and riparian reforestation are the most cost-effective measure for improving water quality, Schnabel said. Keeping cattle from drinking water that they’re directly depositing their waste in benefits the farmer too, a CBF-led study shows.
It lowers the cost of veterinary bills because the cattle are drinking from a different, cleaner water source (Trout plans to implement a water trough), Schnabel said. And when cows drink clean water they gain weight much faster, “and with beef cattle farming it’s all about reaching your market weight as fast as possible.”
Fencing the cattle away from the stream means they need a way to cross. For Trout that means implementing, with cost-share dollars, a 15-foot wide and about 100-foot long reinforced stream crossing, Schnabel said. A geotech style fabric will be laid along the bottom of the stream and will be covered by gravel, he added.
The crossing area will likely be gated off, allowing Trout to rotate cattle between different pastures.
“By having the stream buffers it actually helps me manage the pastures better,” he said. And the reinforced crossing is “going to be beneficial to me because I’m not going to have the stream bank eroding away” from cattle tromping the banks.
The rotational grazing operation Trout envisions has a significant environmental benefit.
“Corn is a fairly leaky crop. When you apply fertilizer to it, a lot of it leaches into the groundwater or off the land,” Schnabel explained. “But when you have a permanent pasture, you’re basically creating a giant sponge and you’re not needing to apply any fertilizer, any chemical fertilizer to it.
“The cattle kind of walk around and when they rotationally graze, they apply their own manure. And the kind of plants that you have in your pasture, many of them are legumes, like clovers, red clover and white clover is nitrogen fixer.”
It’s a win for the farmer and a win for the environment. And there’s grant money available to incentivize farmers participation, Schnabel said. “We need to do a lot more of this type of work.”
Trout said he was surprised how quickly the project came together.
“This has been maybe a two-month ordeal and it’s already being put into action,” he said. “ I was expecting like maybe possibly like a year.”
Making dad proud
And on Saturday after he finished drilling holes and parked his front-loader in the barn, Trout looked out over his farm — the volunteers hard at work planting trees in the holes he’d dug.
This project will help him carry on the family legacy, however difficult it may be.
“This is my life,” Trout said, his face and arms blackened by the soot from his full-time job. He works the night shift at Lehigh Heidelberg Cement Group five days a week and during the day he works on the farm.
It’ll be 10 to 15 years before he can work the farm full time, he estimated. “I want to start direct marketing the beef.”
“I’m still going to have the crops,” Trout said, “but I’m going to start integrating the cows into the crop fields.”
He has a herd of 30 cattle now, but he’d like to get up to about 100.
“Right now, I’m just building my herd.”
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It’s all part of his vision. His vision to preserve his family legacy, and to make his father proud.