Ch­e­sa­peake farm­ers tar­get runoff re­duc­tion

Law­mak­ers seek conser va­tion funds

Sunday Star - - MARYLAND - By CHRIS CIOFFI Cap­i­tal News Ser­vice

MID­DLE­TOWN — A gag­gle of ex­citable white tur­keys gob­bled and clucked in their pen at Open Book Farm on a chilly af­ter­noon in late Oc­to­ber.

Most days, the birds roamed free in one of the farm’s pas­tures, scratch­ing and walk­ing around un­der the care of own­ers Mar y Kathryn and An­drew Bar­net.

In spring and sum­mer, the tur­keys shared the 192-acre farm with chick­ens, hogs and cows. The tur­keys soon joined the other an­i­mals in Open Book’s freezer af­ter be­ing slaugh­tered and pro­cessed.

Open Book is one of many farms in the state that has re­ceived funds from gov­ern­ment pro­grams help­ing farm­ers. The pro­grams help them de­velop con­ser­va­tion plans and pay for projects that in­clude plant­ing trees along river­banks, and pur­chas­ing live­stock fenc­ing, wa­ter lines and pas­ture seed.

Farm­ing ac­counts for more acreage than any other sin­gle eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity and is the largest con­trib­u­tor of nu­tri­ent and sed­i­ment pollution en­ter­ing into the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay.

The con­stel­la­tion of pro­grams across the United States sup­port­ing farmer con­ser­va­tion are funded by the farm bill. In this year’s five-year up­date of that bill, the House and Se­nate ver­sions al­lo­cate dif­fer­ent sums to th­ese pro­grams in­clud­ing the Re­gional Con­ser­va­tion Part­ner­ship Pro­gram.

Leg­is­la­tors and con­ser­va­tion­ists have pushed for the Se­nate’s ver­sion of the Con­ser­va­tion Part­ner­ship fund­ing, which law­mak­ers say would up spend­ing to about $350 mil­lion. Lead­ers rec­on­cil­ing the two bills an­nounced an agree­ment in prin­ci­ple on the 2018 Farm Bill, but have yet to re­lease specifics.

Ap­prox­i­mately $220 mil­lion in part­ner­ship projects were funded across the coun­try in 2018. More than $16 mil­lion of that was al­lo­cated to Ch­e­sa­peake Bay re­gion states.

The Bar­nets pur­chased Open Book in 2015 and have re­ceived roughly $50,000 in as­sis­tance from con­ser­va­tion pro­grams. The money has been cru­cial to their op­er­a­tion, Mary Kathryn Bar­net said.

“If you don’t in­herit a farm that’s run­ning, the dif­fer­ent pro­grams can help you get the in­fra­struc­ture,

es­pe­cially with an­i­mals, to get go­ing,” she told Cap­i­tal News Ser­vice.

Keep­ing nu­tri­ents

on the land

Open Book raises its an­i­mals on pas­ture. The live­stock is ro­tated through a se­ries of fenced pens, giv­ing the grasses and clovers time to re­gen­er­ate be­fore the an­i­mals re­turn.

They live dif­fer­ent lives than those on in­dus­trial farm­ing op­er­a­tions. Those an­i­mals are re­stricted to small pens and live in close quar­ters with other an­i­mals. Their waste can be im­prop­erly stored or spread on fields push­ing pollution into lo­cal water­ways.

Live­stock waste and other types of fer­til­izer, rich in ni­tro­gen and phos­pho­rus, runs off crop­land and even lawns boost­ing al­gae growth that blocks sun­light from sea­grasses. When al­gae de­com­pose, the process starves the wa­ter of oxy­gen, cre­at­ing dead zones.

The farm’s fences keep an­i­mals from tram­pling river­banks, and a buf­fer of newly planted trees along streambeds re­duces ero­sion, keeps streams cooler and ab­sorbs some of the ex­cess ni­tro­gen and phos­pho­rus run­ning off the land.

Open Book also has re­ceived funds from the Con­ser­va­tion Re­serve Pro­gram, which pays farms to set aside acres of farm­land along stream banks to plant stream buf­fers.

Spread­ing too much or too lit­tle fer­til­izer is not typ­i­cally in­ten­tional, said Lori Lynch, a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Mary­land’s Depart­ment of Agri­cul­tural and Re­source Eco­nom­ics. Farm­ers don’t al­ways have ac­cess to tests that can iden­tify how much nu­tri­ents

are in ma­nure or al­ready in soil, she said.

“For most farm­ers, they’re ac­tu­ally pay­ing for the fer­til­izer,” Lynch said. “So they have an in­cen­tive to have their plants use all the fer­til­izer.”

Pas­tures could save

farm­ers money Keep­ing an­i­mals like cows on pas­ture re­quires more acreage per an­i­mal, but farm­ers spend less to raise them, and an­i­mals spread their own ma­nure while munch­ing their cud.

That works for some farm­ers, like ones who raise dairy cows — there’s less milk, but costs are lower per gal­lon, said Rob Schn­abel, wa­ter­shed restora­tion sci­en­tist for the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay Foun­da­tion.

“You’re get­ting more for what you’re pro­duc­ing, even though you’re pro­duc­ing less,” he said.

Fenc­ing an­i­mals out of streams can also pre­vent them from get­ting sick be­cause they’re not pick­ing up pathogens from river wa­ter, he said.

For farm­ers who just grow crops, they can re­duce ero­sion and nu­tri­ent runoff, as well as keep weeds down, by plant­ing cover crops like cow­peas or bar­ley when fields are fal­low.

“From a soil health per­spec­tive and an ero­sion per­spec­tive, if you can keep the ground cov­ered all the time that’s a ver y ben­e­fi­cial thing,” Lynch said.

Bay pro­gram’s ori­gins

In 1987, lead­ers from Penn­syl­va­nia, Mary­land, New York, Vir­ginia, West Vir­ginia, Delaware and the Dis­trict of Columbia com­pris­ing the 64,000-square-mile wa­ter­shed agreed to set spe­cific goals re­duc­ing pollution run­ning off into the Ch­e­sa­peake.

The agree­ment aimed for a

40 per­cent re­duc­tion in nu­tri­ent runoff by 2000. The ef­forts were vol­un­tary, and the goals were not met. Nei­ther was a 10-year cleanup agree­ment signed in 2000.

In 2009, Pres­i­dent Barack Obama is­sued an ex­ec­u­tive or­der call­ing for the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to re­new the ef­fort to pro­tect and re­store the wa­ter­shed. The fol­low­ing year, the U.S. En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency set what it called “to­tal max­i­mum daily load” goals for states in the re­gion.

The EPA let states de­vise wa­ter­shed im­ple­men­ta­tion plans to achieve runoff re­duc­tions by 2025. This year was the mid­point, and the EPA’s as­sess­ment found that some goals have been met, but some states have done bet­ter than oth­ers.

In the first seven years of the new plan, some of the big­gest re­duc­tions came from up­grades to large pol­lu­tant con­trib­u­tors like mu­nic­i­pal waste­water treat­ment plants, the EPA as­sess­ment said.

“The low-hang­ing fruit has been picked, and part of that is waste­water treat­ment plants,” said Beth McGee, the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay Foun­da­tion’s di­rec­tor of sci­ence and agri­cul­tural pol­icy.

The two out­stand­ing ar­eas that could be re­duced most are ur­ban and agri­cul­tural runoff, she said.

Fin­ish­ing the job

To keep ratch­et­ing down emis­sions, of­fi­cials are work­ing to get more farm­ers to adopt con­ser­va­tion prac­tices be­cause they are typ­i­cally less ex­pen­sive than build­ing stormwa­ter in­fra­struc­ture in cities.

“It may be cheaper, but it re­lies on a landowner to say ‘I’m will­ing to put this prac­tice in,’” McGee said. “We’re get­ting to the point to where the farm­ers aren’t in­ter­ested in what we’re of­fer­ing, so we need to get creative.”

The foun­da­tion has been push­ing to plant more miles of stream bar­ri­ers an­nu­ally, but such plant­ings have de­clined in re­cent years, ac­cord­ing to the foun­da­tion.

About 55 per­cent of roughly

288,000 miles of stream­bank and shore­lines in the Bay re­gion are forested, ac­cord­ing to the pro­gram. Sci­en­tists be­lieve rivers and streams are health­i­est when more than 70 per­cent of their edges are cov­ered.

Lynch said she be­lieves that al­most all farm­ers are prac­tic­ing some kind of conser va­tion on their lands, but some prac­tices may not be the most ef­fec­tive or im­prop­erly im­ple­mented.

“I think there is a pretty high num­ber of peo­ple who are at least try­ing,” she said.

A pos­si­ble way to get more farm­ers to plant stream buf­fers, Lynch said, is to plant trees and bushes like wal­nuts or blue­ber­ries, which can be­come an­other rev­enue source.

Farm bill fund­ing Lead­ers from both the House and Se­nate Agri­cul­ture Com­mit­tees an­nounced Thurs­day an agree­ment in prin­ci­ple on the 2018 Farm Bill has been reached.

“We are work­ing to fi­nal­ize le­gal and re­port lan­guage as well as CBO (Con­gres­sional Bud­get Of­fice) scores, but we still have more work to do,” a joint state­ment said. “We are com­mit­ted to de­liv­er­ing a new farm bill to Amer­ica as quickly as pos­si­ble.”

Specifics of the bill have not yet been re­leased.

Law­mak­ers from the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay states sent a let­ter to the con­fer­ence com­mit­tee ear­lier this year re­quest­ing the Se­nate’s ver­sion of Con­ser­va­tion Part­ner­ship fund­ing.

The sign­ers in­cluded Mary­land Demo­cratic Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen and the seven Mar yland Demo­cratic Reps. Dutch Rup­pers­berger (Ti­mo­nium), John Sar­banes (Tow­son), An­thony Brown (Up­per Marl­boro), Steny Hoyer (Me­chan­icsville), John De­laney (Po­tomac), Eli­jah Cum­mings (Bal­ti­more) and Jamie Raskin (Kens­ing­ton).

“This bill will sup­port our farm­ers by pro­vid­ing them with more re­sources to re­duce agri­cul­tural runoff into the Bay,” the let­ter said. “Th­ese restora­tion ef­forts are key to im­prov­ing the health of the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay, and a healthy Bay is vi­tal to a strong econ­omy based on tourism, the wa­ter­men who har vest its bounty, and the boat­ing in­dus­try.”

For farm­ers like the Bar­nets, the pro­grams helped im­prove the bay’s health, and also gives them an op­por­tu­nity to sell pre­mium farm prod­ucts that can fetch a higher price.

As Mary Kathryn Bar­net looked at a slope along a stream at the edge of her farm­land, she said it was an easy choice to plant it with trees in­stead of tr ying to grow corn or soy­beans.

“It’s ground that makes ab­so­lutely no sense to crop, and it would be dif­fi­cult to graze as well,” she said. “Frankly, it cap­tures car­bon, it looks re­ally nice and it brings us a lit­tle money.”

CHRIS CIOFFI/CAP­I­TAL NEWS SER­VICE

Mary Kathryn Bar­net, who owns Open Book Farm with hus­band An­drew Bar­net, opens the side of the farm’s turkey house.

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