Farmers will be the first to tell you that advanced land-management practices are great for reducing sediment and nutrient runoff into waterways.
But there's a catch.
The cost of implementing many of today's land-use practices can be overwhelming, said Gary Davis, director of the Harford Soil Conservation Service.
"Farmers do not have the ability to pass along the costs of these practices in the costs of the products they sell," Davis said. "A farmer can't say, 'Hey, I had to install two (runoff-control channels) so I need an extra nickel a bushel for my farm,' " he said. "That's not the way it works."
On Wednesday, farmers in the Deer Creek watershed learned of a proposed federal cost-share program aimed at helping farmers with the costs of starting "best-management"practices.
More than 50 farmers and landowners from the 93,500-acre Deer Creek watershed turned out at the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service office to listen as federal and state administrators outlined the program.
"Money is probably the biggest problem," said Milton Howell, U.S. Department of Agriculture administrator who conducted the meeting.
Through the federal program, farmerscould receive as much as half of the cost of installing land-management systems, up to $100,000, Howell said. For animal-waste facilities, the federal portion of the cost share could reach 67 percent.
State and federal cost-share programs exist, but are limited, Howell said. The state's cost-share program has $10,000 limit per project.
Some $200,000 a year could be allocated for the Deer Creek watershed area, an area of 145 square miles in Harford that includes 535 farms,Howell said.
Initial response to the program has been favorable, said Davis, particularly because pressure on farmers to start land-management practices is likely to increase in coming years, while the future of cost-share programs is uncertain.
"If you don't do it voluntarily now, you'll have to do it mandatorily in the future," said Jimmie Miller, a county farmer and vice chairman of the Harford soil conservation district.
Farmers face mounting pressure to reduce soil erosion and to limit runoff of sediment and animal waste into tributaries of ecologically sensitive waterways like the Chesapeake Bay.
A target of criticism from environmentalists has been animal waste, particularly from livestock on dairy farms. Runoff of animal waste carries nutrients -- such as phosphorus and nitrogen -- into the DeerCreek and eventually to the bay. These nutrients have an adverse effect on aquatic life and water quality.
In a 1990 state ranking of 124 Maryland streams, Deer Creek ranked 11th for potential release ofphosphorus.
One solution for a farmer is to build a waste-management facility, typically a concrete structure where the material can be collected and properly processed.
But the price tag can range between $30,000 and $50,000, which can be out of reach of many farmers without some kind of cost-sharing.
Other management practices are designed to control erosion and sediment runoff. These include strip-cropping, stream-bank stabilization, and irrigation structures for drainage control.
For two years, Howell said, the program has been applied successfully among landowners in the 63,000-acre Linganore Creek watershed in Frederick County. This year more than $100,000 had been allocated for that project.
But because the program is voluntary, it will go nowhere in Harford without adequate interest on the part of Deer Creek watershed landowners, Howell said.
Part of the purpose of Wednesday's meeting was to gauge interest in the program. Howell said sufficient enthusiasm is required before his office would make a formal request for the money.
"You can't shove this down anyone's throat," he said. "The landowners have to want it."
Some landowners supported the program because it would provide financial assistance for voluntary practices that might be required in the future, when cost-share programs may no longer exist.
"In 15 years everyonewill have to have permits to have animals on their property," predicted Perryman farmer Wilbur Pierce. "Down the road, you won't be able to operate without (best-management practices). I hope everybody getsenthusiastically behind this."
Davis said the agricultural community could eliminate the need for regulation if farmers tend land-management problems on their own.
"As long as farmers in Maryland install these practices on a voluntary basis, there will be no need to regulation," he said.
Davis expected that, based on the response Wednesday, Howell would proceed with the formal application process. If the money were allocated, it could be available to farmers by fall, Howell said.