Help farmers, help the bay

The Baltimore Sun

CORDOVA -- The barley fields on Bobby Hutchison's 4,000-acre farm are a healthy-looking deep green. Nearby, nubs of corn that were just planted are on their way to becoming golden stalks. The white frame house and barn are a pastoral scene that hark back to the 1930s, when Hutchison's father bought the Talbot County land and brought his family into the business.

Under the surface, though, the view is less rosy. Farms remain one of the largest sources of pollution for the Chesapeake Bay, delivering huge amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment into the 125,000 miles of rivers that drain into the bay's six-state watershed.

The same fertilizer that helps to grow the corn and peas that sustain life is killing the bay, clogging it with pollutants that are stressing its vibrant marine life.

"When I got into this, I thought I was a good guy, a white hat. Now, there's scarcely an article that I read where I'm not labeled a polluter," Hutchison said.

For decades, policy officials and environmentalists have been pointing to the statistics on agriculture pollution and telling farmers such as Hutchison to clean up their act. But today, there's a bit of a twist:

With the region rapidly losing farms to development, the environmental movement has concluded that to save the bay, it has to save the farms. The view is that a farm that's doing everything right is far better for the bay than a 1,000-home development that will bring its own polluting runoff down newly paved driveways and streets.

Farmers and environmentalists have formed a coalition to try to have several hundred million dollars in the federal farm bill allocated to farm pollution-control measures. The proponents say it will be their best opportunity to get farmers the money they need to plant cover crops, put in stream buffers - and, maybe, change the perception of farmers as major polluters.

"We realized how important the farm bill was to funding conservation for agriculture," said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission.

How a piece of legislation best known for providing subsidies to commercial sugar and corn growers has become the best hope for cleaning up the bay has a lot to do with the commission, which functions as the legislative arm of the federal-state Chesapeake Bay Program. The commission, which is made up of legislators from Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania, advises governors of all three states, as well as the mayor of the District of Columbia, on policies that protect the watershed.

In 2004, its staff investigated which practices would clean up the bay at the lowest cost. Of the seven best-bang-for-the-buck practices, six involved agriculture. The seventh involved sewage treatment plant upgrades, which in Maryland would largely be taken care of through revenues from the "flush tax" passed under the Ehrlich administration.

If the bay states implemented all six agriculture recommendations, they would reach 75 percent of their goals for nitrogen reduction bay-wide, at a cost of $623 million a year.

Under the current farm bill, the federal government is spending about $80 million a year on conservation measures in the bay watershed. The commission is pushing to increase that to $260 million. The states would then match that money, and the farmers would contribute some, too, bringing the total annual spending on agriculture to roughly $700 million a year bay-wide.

That funding would help pay for an alphabet soup of state and federal programs that essentially help stem the flow of sediment, phosphorus and nitrogen into the bay. It would also help farmers get the technical assistance they need to manage runoff.

One of the most popular ways to reduce runoff is the use of cover crops: the government essentially pays farmers to plant barley, rye or winter wheat to help stop erosion and decrease the leaching of pollutants. The money that farmers receive compensates them for their seed and labor. Maryland used to receive federal funds for cover crops, but now it has only state money, agriculture officials said.

During this past growing season, 1,550 Maryland farmers applied to use cover crops on 455,000 acres, according to Louise Lawrence, who runs the resource conservation office at the Maryland Department of Agriculture. But the department had funds to accept requests for only about 65 percent of that acreage. "Our program could have spent between $12 million and $17 million, but we had only $8.3 million to spend," Lawrence said.

Advocates would also like the farm bill to provide more money for the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, or CREP, which pays farmers to take marginal land out of production and use it to restore wetlands and plant buffers. Of the nearly 2 million acres of farmland in Maryland in 2002, about 73,000 were in the CREP program. Maryland pays about 20 percent of the program's costs, while the federal government pays the rest.

"We love CREP because it gives you habitat, water quality benefits, and it conserves soil. And the great thing is that it's a voluntary, incentive-based program," said Jonathan McKnight, who administers the program through the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

A third program, the Conservation Security program, pays farmers in some areas for being good stewards. Swanson's group is lobbying to make it available to all property owners in the bay watershed, whether they are close to streams or not.

Hutchison, 56, takes advantage of all three programs. His farm also includes several "grass waterways," grassy borders which he has planted near streams to help keep sediment out of the bay. He pays a consultant each year to help him develop a nutrient-management plan and follows it closely.

He doesn't till his soil, thus leaving the ground less disturbed and helping to control pollution. And he is conservative in his use of fertilizers - at a cost of nearly $250,000 for 2006 alone, he has to be.

He doesn't like the idea of government subsidies, but he doesn't know how he could make it without them.

While Hutchison's business expenses for 2006 totaled more than $1 million, his profits aren't going up. And though the farmer is expected to mitigate the effects of his fertilizer, no one is asking the owners of large, green suburban lawns to do the same for the fertilizer they use.

"We have not been making much money for the last few years. When my father started farming, he was getting 38 percent of the consumer's food dollar. Now it's more like 5 percent," Hutchison said.

Not everyone thinks that giving more money to farmers will help them do the right thing.

Former state Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad tried for decades to pass legislation that would penalize farmers for failing to control pollution on their farms. After the Pfiesteria outbreak a decade ago, the state passed a law requiring farmers to file a nutrient management plan.

But the Maryland Department of Agriculture, which is charged with enforcement, audits only a small number of farms to make sure they're following their plans. Last year, it conducted just 207 audits, reviewing less than 4 percent of the 6,500 farms in the state.

"In Maryland, farmers are getting a free ride. Nobody's standing up and blowing the whistle. We've been doing this with carrots, and it's not working the way it should be," Winegrad, who represented Anne Arundel County as a Democrat, said.

Some environmental groups, such as the Pennsylvania-based PennFuture, have sued farmers over water-quality issues. But the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the largest environmental group in the region, has taken the opposite approach in recent years, allying itself with farmers. In 2006, its prestigious Conservationist of the Year award went to the Sayre family, which operates Waffle Hill, a cattle farm in Harford County.

Environmentalists have concluded there is an advantage to food being grown locally - cheaper prices, less pollution to truck it across interstates - as well as to keeping farms in business. Though farms still cover a quarter of the bay watershed, many states are rapidly losing farmland to the demands for affordable housing.

"There has been a large increase in recognition that an acre of farmland is preferable, environmentally, to an acre of development," said Ned Sayre, who raises cattle at Waffle Hill. "Farming has always been less detrimental to the environment than developing the ground. There were some practices used in the past that were not as sophisticated. But we do an even better job now than what my grandparents were doing 50 years ago."

Sayre, who was recognized for his manure-control measures, said conservation can cost farmers hundreds of thousands of dollars and they do take advantage of the available government help.

As he drove recently through Talbot and Caroline counties on Maryland's Eastern Shore, Russ Brinsfield, who runs the University of Maryland's Center for Agro-Ecology in Queenstown, could see many farms were growing "greener." He pointed to acres of buffer strips, grass waterways, no-till methods - the sort of measures his center encourages to help the environment.

At Hutchison's farm, Brinsfield, who has a grain and vegetable farm in Dorchester County, admired the grass waterway and the silky barley. "You can't get much better than this," he said.

And yet, just as the environmentalists seem to be coming around to the value of farms, Hutchison worries that his farm's days might be numbered. "Up until six months ago, if a developer came up the lane, I'd chase him down the lane so fast," Hutchison said. "Today, I'd have to say I'd talk to him."

For Swanson and the other farm bill advocates, that would be the worst possible outcome.

"If we think it's hard to save the bay right now, if we lose agriculture, it will be impossible," she said. "If all that land goes to development, we're sunk."

rona.kobell@baltsun.com

FARM CONTROLS

Farms cover 25 percent of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. They are one of the largest sources of pollution for the Chesapeake Bay, sending millions of pounds of sediment, nitrogen and phosphorus into the waterways of the six-state bay region.

Over the years, scientists have developed various ways of controlling farm pollution that are easy to implement and extremely effective. Environmentalists and farmers are working together to get more money in the federal Farm Bill to help bay farmers grow greener and cleaner. Here are some of the most popular programs:

COVER CROPS

Farmers plant a crop in the winter so that the soil isn't bare, which helps the earth absorb nutrients. The government pays farmers for their seed and labor.

GRASS WATERWAYS

Farmers plant patches of tall grass along a waterway to prevent soil erosion. CREP

The Conservation Resource Enhancement Program pays farmers to take marginal farmland out of production and use it as a buffer to help control runoff as well as remove pollutants from the groundwater.

NUTRIENT MANAGEMENT PLANS

Since 1998, farmers have been required to file plans with the state of Maryland indicating how they will manage pollution. The Maryland Department of Agriculture has audited a small percentage of these farmers.

CONSERVATION TILLAGE

Management Plans Farmers use minimum soil disturbance when planting crops, leaving much of the vegetation cover on the surface.

SOURCE: SUN REPORTING, SUN NEWS GRAPHIC

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