Project aims to protect water; U.S., state, local funding available to attract farmers


From the house on their farm outside Cooksville, Brice and Mary Anne Ridgely enjoy a view of grassy hills, deer grazing in a brush-covered marsh and ducks swimming on a tranquil pond. The elements of this rural setting also serve a purpose -- as part of a conservation program designed to protect soil and waterways.

The Ridgelys planted 3,700 saplings to hold the soil and form a buffer between their fields and the water. They built fences along streams to keep cows and horses from eroding the banks and polluting the water. They set round cement water troughs at the corners of grazing areas, and planted permanent pastures to keep top soil from washing away.

Like many other landowners across Maryland, the Ridgelys received technical assistance and payments from the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, which is funded by a coalition of federal, state and local interests.

"If I had to do it myself, the cost wouldn't have been feasible," said Brice Ridgely, who estimates that he receives $115 an acre from the program annually. He plans to enroll 15 acres of his Spring Meadow Farm by the time he is done next year.

The program is backed by $200 million in federal funds intended to boost enrollment among Maryland farmers. The state also contributes money and staffing, and the nonprofit organization Ducks Unlimited pays a percentage of installation costs.

Statewide, the program is falling short of its goal to enroll 100,000 acres in five years. Among the reasons: limited funds and the difficulty of coordinating many organizations, say members of the program's advisory committee.

Still, Louise Lawrence of the Maryland Department of Agriculture says that enrolling 14,000 acres in 1 1/2 years is a good pace at a time when farmers are distracted by drought conditions and low commodities prices.

"Setting aside 10 to 15 acres is a big decision," said Lawrence, chief of the office of resource conservation, noting that farmers have taken time to consider their options and learn the program's nuances.

The Howard County Soil Conservation District and its partners are working to make the program a success in that area, said Cheryl Simmons, a conservationist with the district. They are pursuing a goal of 400 acres a year. County landowners have enrolled 17 tracts, slightly less than 400 acres, in the past two years.

Programs in Howard, Kent and Washington counties have benefited from publicity by one partner: a year-old network of farmers, agriculture professionals and landowners called Future Harvest.

Backed by nearly $200,000 in foundation grants, the group launched an advertising and direct mail campaign this fall to support the program. Next year, the group plans to reach out to landowners across Maryland.

Program sponsors, including the U.S. and Maryland departments of agriculture, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and other groups, see the small streams that run through farmland as an opportunity to protect the environment all the way to the Chesapeake Bay.

Keeping these small areas clean and free of extra sediment is "the thing to do if you are going to save the bay," said former state Sen. James Clark Jr., who has worked on his family's Clarkland Farms north of Columbia all his life.

Clark planted buffers several years ago under a similar county program, and added fences and 5,700 trees this spring as part of the conservation program.

Almost all of the 250 farms in Howard County have streams or wetlands that could benefit from buffers, Simmons said. Landowners who do not engage in traditional farming might be eligible as well.

Although "the money makes it possible" for landowners to enroll, Simmons said, participants are really motivated when they "see the benefit of buffers to the stewardship of their land."

Michael Clark, who raises cattle, hogs and crops at Limestone Valley Farm in Clarksville with his brother Rick Warfield, has not ruled out joining the conservation program, but sees drawbacks.

Many farmers "can't afford to give up that much land," despite the program's payments for set-up costs and sacrificing the land's use, he said. During dry years, farmers rely on the pastures near waterways, he said, and fear they could jeopardize their cattle businesses.

He also said that for some farmers, setting aside land for 10 or more years might interfere with their plans to sell their farm to a developer.

"It's getting tough to make a living," he said.

Charles Feaga, president of the Howard County Farm Bureau, says his group supports the program because it is voluntary, but he is not sure how many local farmers will join.

Most farmers are "very, very concerned" about conservation, he said. They do their part through planting practices that limit soil disturbances and by keeping crops away from roads.

David Patrick, who raises dairy cattle and crops with his brother and sons, knew about the program for a few years, but didn't want to join unless he had to. This fall, he had a change of heart when he and his partners considered the environmental and public relations benefits of protecting their stream from the cattle that like to stand in it.

The program is "going to pay $100 per acre per year. It isn't going to be a costly endeavor," he said.

Patrick's main regret is that he does not think his Maple Dell Farm, near Lisbon, will be as attractive with the buffer as it was with cows in neatly trimmed fields.

The neighbors enjoy seeing the cows in pretty meadows, he said.

"I think it's a very beneficial thing we have done," said Brice Ridgely.

He hopes rabbits, quail and pheasant will return to the area now that he has learned that clearing foliage along waterways can increase erosion and reduce water quality.

The Ridgelys bought their farm from Brice Ridgely's parents. He has worked on it all his life.

"We saw a need" to preserve it, he said. "If we take care of it, it can be beneficial for our grandchildren's generation."

Individuals interested in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program can call toll free 877-4-BUFFER.

Pub Date: 11/25/99

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