When it comes to handing out conservation awards, the Maryland farmer should be at the head of the line, as I have said before.
Farmers paid out $1.4 million of their money to adopt a record number of on-farm conservation practices last year to protect soil and water from erosion and excess nutrients.
Since 1985, farmers have spent more than $11 million of their money to match about $90 million in state water quality cost-share funds to install more than 21,000 best-management practices to help protect the health of the Chesapeake Bay.
It's now time for the rest of us to do our part in cleaning up the bay.
The state Department of Agriculture and the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension's Home and Garden Information Center have teamed to launch a new educational program, demonstrating steps that homeowners can take to help the bay.
The program, "Take it from Maryland Farmers: Backyard Actions for a Cleaner Chesapeake Bay," is based on the best-management practices that farmers use routinely in the management of their farms.
It is an educational outreach program aimed at informing homeowners about practical actions they can take to protect the bay.
While there are numerous programs aimed at curbing erosion and nutrient pollution on farms and construction sites, homeowners are often unaware of the many ways they can make a difference.
"Farmers, like homeowners and all residents of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, play an important role in protecting our soil and water resources," Gov. Martin O'Malley said last month in announcing the new program.
Agriculture Secretary Roger Richardson added: "Farmers are the first stewards of the land. This education campaign recognizes the environmental accomplishment of farmers and shares with homeowners the measures that can be easily applied to backyard lawns and gardens to help protect soil and water quality and especially the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries."
As farmers learned decades ago, it is wise to use fertilizer wisely.
Some general "Rules of Thumb" for fertilizing lawns and gardens:
* Have soil tested.
* Don't over-fertilize; follow the recommendations of your soil test.
* Avoid getting fertilizer on sidewalks and driveways where it can easily wash into storm drains and streams.
* Use compost to improve soil structure.
Most state farms have nutrient management plans based on soil tests so that just the right amount of nutrients is used for the crops being grown. Similarly, homeowners or their lawn/landscaping service should do a soil test to know what nutrients are needed on lawns and for all plantings before applying fertilizer.
Almost 100 percent of the state's 1.3 million acres of eligible farmland are covered by nutrient management plans. There are nearly 1 million acres of residential lawns in the state.
Another tip that homeowners can take from farmers is to consider alternatives to the use of pesticides.
Working with the state Department of Agriculture and the university's Cooperative Extension Service, farmers have developed a comprehensive approach to controlling pests called integrated pest management.
Some of the actions taken by farmers that could be applicable to homeowners include:
* Physical controls, such as removing weeds by hand, setting traps and placing protective covers on vegetable rows.
* Biological controls, including the use of beneficial insects to eliminate unwanted insects.
* Preventive measures such as disease-resistant plants, crop rotation and companion planting of flowers, vegetables and herbs.
* Use pesticides only when needed.
Many farmers hire scouts to search their fields, identify problems, recommend management techniques, and implement action to protect crops. Homeowners can take similar management steps before turning to pesticides.
Jon Traunfeld, director of the university's Home and Garden Information Center, said it is a great place for homeowners to start when searching for answers to gardens, plants and insect problems.
He said the center's Website, www.hgic.umd.edu, has lots of up-to-date information and allows people to e-mail the center with problems.
Homeowners and gardeners can also call the center toll-free at 800-342-2507 from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. and speak with a certified professional horticulturist about easy-to-follow, bay-friendly suggestions for fertilizing lawns and gardens, spotting and correcting erosion problems, controlling weeds and insects without pesticides, and conserving water.