CENTREVILLE -- It's not an easy job getting farmers to change their habits. But with tens of thousands of tons of nitrogen from fertilizer and manure polluting the Chesapeake Bay every year, somebody's got to do it.
Tom Simpson, coordinator of Chesapeake Bay Agricultural Programs, and Paul Gunther, Queen Anne's County extension agent, know that new techniques can help the environment and sometimes save farmers money.
Both work for the University of Maryland, whose Cooperative Extension Service has taught farmers about improving profitability and economic stability over the years.
But now the job includes teaching environmental management.
Farmers, Mr. Simpson points out, are "the largest land managers in the state."
Nitrogen, which they use to nourish their crops, feeds algae if it gets into the bay. The algae, in turn, deplete the bay's oxygen and interfere with the sunlight that nourishes bay grasses and other plant life.
The extension service can tell farmers how much nitrogen is just enough.
But farmers "are not always convinced that you can take soil into an office and tell them they don't need any nitrogen" from fertilizer or manure, Mr. Simpson says.
They ask farmers to break with tradition and, as Mr. Gunther puts it, "You have to break it to 'em gentle.
"One step at a time. . . . You've got to realize, in agriculture you get one shot to make your crops."
He knows the newest techniques seldom take hold until farmers hear success stories from those who adopt them, or tales of woe from those who don't.
One success story is no-till farming.
In the past, farmers tilled the land every year, lifting up nitrogen that eventually would escape to the bay. In the mid-1980s, they were strongly encouraged not to till their land, but many &L resisted. They worried about disease and pests.
Queen Anne's County farmer Ed Mason, who listens to Mr. Gunther's advice, now leaves many of his corn and wheat fields untilled.
Mr. Mason recalls his father's skepticism with no-till. "My father's chin about hit the floor," he says.
At first, farmers experimented with no-till on a field or two. Now, it's common practice.
"It's been good," Mr. Mason says. "It yielded as well as conventional." Also, "It saves two trips across the field."
The only trade-off is adding another chemical to the spray tank to combat pests.
Just as farmers adopt practices that work, they drop those that ** don't.
Mr. Gunther talks of one wheat farmer who came across a feared pest -- the grass sawfly that had been damaging crops in the South. The farmer hired a pilot to spray.
But he later learned that it wasn't a sawfly he had found and killed; it was the larvae of a lady bird beetle.
These beetles don't damage crops, they eat aphids that do.
Once the beetles were gone, aphids became a problem. Three weeks later, the farmer had to pay again for a pilot, Mr. Gunther says.
That farmer "became a firm believer" in modern insect-control techniques, Mr. Gunther recalls, as did many others "by the time that [story] got from coffee shop to coffee shop."
Another horror story concerns a farmer whose measuring instruments were not properly calibrated. Rather than the recommended 5 tons of chicken manure, he spread 12 tons over his crops.
The layer looked thin to the naked eye, but it was 7 tons more than the crop could absorb, leaving the excess to run off.
By measuring the manure over a small plastic sheet, Mr. Gunther can tell a farmer if he's spreading too much.
"It's not a glamorous job, but it's saved a lot of farmers a lot of money," Mr. Gunther says.
Mr. Gunther can be hard on farmers, but when they come under attack from environmentalists, he jumps to their defense.
"There's no one that even holds a light to these guys," he says. A farmer's "whole livelihood depends on the way he treats the land."
Mr. Simpson defends farmers as well.
They don't get credit from urban residents or legislators for their environmental practices, he said.