Farm­ers care about the bay, too

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Lee McDaniel, Chip Bowl­ing and Richard Wilkins Lee McDaniel (Lee-McDaniel@nacd­net.org) is pres­i­dent of the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Con­ser­va­tion Districts; Chip Bowl­ing (to­bac­co­man5@ya­hoo.com) is pres­i­dent of the Na­tional Corn Grow­ers As­so­ci­a­tion, and R

Most of us have an un­der­stand­ing of how im­por­tant the health of the Chesapeake Bay and its trib­u­taries are to aquatic and ri­par­ian ecosys­tems, work­ing land­scapes and lo­cal economies. But the folks we rep­re­sent — Amer­i­can farm­ers — know it on a much deeper and more per­sonal level.

The Chesapeake Bay, the largest es­tu­ary in North Amer­ica, is home to more than 83,000 farms that to­gether gen­er­ate $10 bil­lion in eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity each year. For decades, these pro­duc­ers have stepped up all across the wa­ter­shed, as­sumed re­spon­si­bil­ity for their share of the nu­tri­ent and sed­i­ment pol­lu­tion in the bay, and worked tire­lessly to­ward un­prece­dented, re­mark­able change. Just in the past seven years, the agri­cul­ture sec­tor has sin­gle-hand­edly re­duced its phos­pho­rus and sed­i­ment runoff in the wa­ter­shed by 50 per­cent and 75 per­cent re­spec­tively.

Farm­ers care about the bay and the vi­brant and di­verse ecosys­tems it sup­ports be­cause they are at their very core stew­ards of the land. Year in and year out, they de­pend on pro­duc­tive soils and clean water to pro­duce this coun­try’s food, fiber and fuel. And gen­er­a­tion af­ter gen­er­a­tion, they have con­served these nat­u­ral re­sources to the best of their abil­i­ties. We are proud of what our mem­ber­ship has ac­com­plished in the bay over the past sev­eral decades and be­lieve it is our duty to share their story with you.

Since 2009, the agri­cul­tural com­mu­nity has put $890 mil­lion worth of con­ser­va­tion prac­tices on the ground with as­sis­tance from USDA’s Nat­u­ral Re­sources Con­ser­va­tion Ser­vice and con­trib­uted an ad­di­tional $400 mil­lion of their own to the cause. In to­tal, vol­un­tary and in­cen­tive-based con­ser­va­tion prac­tices were in­stalled on over 3.6 mil­lion acres (an area al­most three times the size of Delaware) of work­ing lands within the wa­ter­shed. The re­sults have been ex­tra­or­di­nary. Since 2006, farm­ers’ use of cover crops tripled within the wa­ter­shed, helping to re­duce sheet and rill ero­sion rates by 57 per­cent and edge-of-field sed­i­ment losses by 62 per­cent (that’s 15.1 mil­lion tons of soil per year, or enough soil to fill 150,000 train cars). Just in Mary­land, 492,000 acres of cover crops in 2015 pre­vented an es­ti­mated 2.95 mil­lion pounds of ni­tro­gen and 98,500 pounds of phos­pho­rus from wash­ing into lo­cal trib­u­taries.

Pro­duc­ers have also im­ple­mented notill or con­ser­va­tion tillage sys­tems and boosted the ef­fi­cacy of their nu­tri­ent man­age­ment sys­tems by in­stalling over 3,500 miles of ri­par­ian buf­fers and fences to keep an­i­mal waste and nu­tri­ents from reach­ing wa­ter­ways. All of these prac­tices to­gether have re­duced the loss of ni­tro­gen by 38 per­cent and phos­pho­rus by 45 per­cent.

These im­prove­ments have led to huge spikes in na­tive wildlife pop­u­la­tions.

Take un­der­wa­ter grasses, which pro­vide critical food and shel­ter to wildlife. In 2015, they cov­ered more than 91,000 acres — com­pared to 60,000 acres in 2013. The blue crab, an in­di­ca­tor species for aquatic health, is thriv­ing, too. The num­ber of adult fe­males rose by 92 per­cent just in the past year, bring­ing the over­all crab pop­u­la­tion to its fourth high­est level in two decades. Oyster, Amer­i­can shad, striped bass and an­chovy pop­u­la­tions are all in­creas­ing by leaps and bounds as well.

One of the big­gest and most im­por­tant take-aways from the agri­cul­tural com­mu­nity’s com­bined ef­forts in the Chesapeake Bay wa­ter­shed is that vol­un­tary con­ser­va­tion works. Our pro­duc­ers and con­ser­va­tion districts have proven it, and they’ll keep prov­ing it if we give them the re­sources they need. That’s why we are en­cour­ag­ing Congress to in­vest in vol­un­tary con­ser­va­tion pro­grams in the next farm bill. With the right tools in the right hands, we can make a pro­found dif­fer­ence.

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