Tide turning in favor of curbing farm pollution of bay


June 05, 1993|By TOM HORTON

It is characteristic of the Chesapeake Bay that the current you see in its main channels keeps flowing long after the tide has actually reached its high or low and begun to turn.

This hydraulic curiousity reflects a larger truth: In restoring big, 11 complicated ecosystems, it is not always immediately apparent when the tide first begins to shift.

And so it is now with agriculture, one of the larger and most difficult sources of bay pollution. When we look back in, say, a decade, we will see that the tide took a favorable turn in the early 1990s.

Conflicts will no doubt continue for some time between farmers and environmentalists, and between Maryland's agricultural and

environmental bureaucracies. That is because much remains to be worked out: Who pays the cost of agriculture's cleanup; how to monitor progress across millions of acres of land; whether the small, but significant, number of "bad actors" among farmers can be stopped by Gov. William Donald Schaefer's voluntary approach to regulating farm pollution.

So the current continues to run; but the tide, I think, is turning. What's causing it is nothing mysterious; environmentalists increasingly need an alliance with farmers.

Even while fighting to control pollution from farms, environmentalists see rapid sprawl development of the Maryland landscape as the greatest and most irreversible threat the bay faces. With more than a third of the state's 6.3 million acres in agriculture, attempts to secure better land use and manage growth are doomed without farmers' cooperation.

This year the 85,000-member Chesapeake Bay Foundation held a private retreat to seek an end to hostilities with farm leaders, and soon after published in The Sun a defense of farmers after an editorial critical of their pollution. The letter was all right, no sellout; but I doubt any environmental group would have written it a year or two earlier.

Farmers, meanwhile, are beginning to confront their own set of ++ uncomfortable realities:

* A shrinking land base, down from 3 million acres in 1970 to less than 2.5 million, and declining at the rate of several square miles every year.

* It is often quoted as an "amazing fact" that the entire nation is fed by a mere 2 percent who farm; but Maryland's farmers are now an astoundingly low seven-tenths of 1 percent of the state population.

* The broad, multistate goals of reducing pollution to the Chesapeake Bay by 40 percent are going into effect this year at the level of every local stream and river basin, and in rural areas, farmers are finding they will be responsible for close to 100 percent of the reductions. If they don't comply, the specter of regulation looms.

Increasingly, agriculture is reaching out. A recent example was a three-day retreat on the Wye River, held by the Maryland Agricultural Experiment Station to chart a changing course for state agriculture.

The usual crowd was there -- Farm Bureau, ag officials from state government and the University of Maryland -- but also attending were bay activists, land use experts, ecologists, even Gerry Winegrad, a state senator and ardent environmentalist who champions mandatory pollution controls on farms.

Sitting there, I recalled a friend, who as a newly hired University of Maryland ecologist, gave a talk about fertilizer runoff harming the bay. He was pulled aside afterward by a top university ag official and told: Don't ever mention agriculture and pollution in the same speech again.

That was 20 years ago, and things have certainly progressed since; but only very recently would you see agriculture in Maryland have the guts to assemble a group like the one on the Wye River last month.

The discussions were freewheeling, reflecting ag officials' stated

desire to create "a holistic research initiative dedicated to expanded programs in agriculture, environment, natural resources, urbanization, land use and public policy."

An Iowa farm expert, Paul W. Johnson, told how his state's Legislature, frustrated with Iowa State University's focus on only the production part of farming, brought ag and environmental interests together in the Leopold Center, named after conservationist Aldo Leopold.

Through education, research and local demonstrations, the center has helped Iowa farmers reduce use of nitrogen fertilizer, a key water pollutant there and here, by about 25 percent per acre over neighboring Illinois. Both states last year had identical yields-per-acre of corn.

Johnson added, "Don't lose sight either of the need to talk about the beauty of farming. . . . the aesthetic of farms in the landscape is vitally important."

Brian Chabot, an agro-ecologist from Cornell University, warned that states must not let their farmland wither away because they will need it in coming decades. Locally grown food will become increasingly important, he said, because the few huge producers like California cannot continue to carry such a load.

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