Testimony on farm runoff is late Pollution: Farmers and the public have been hoodwinked about the extent to which agriculture still fouls the Chesapeake Bay.

On the Bay

September 26, 1997|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

THIS WEEK -- five to 10 years late -- Maryland agricultural scientists officially explained why farming still pollutes the bay more than the public has been led to believe.

For this I would not blame individual farmers, who have been hoodwinked, too; nor individual ag researchers.

I do blame the Maryland Department of Agriculture and the leadership of the University of Maryland College of Agriculture.

They represent a culture that is incapable of carrying out the heavy environmental responsibilities they have fought to keep, separate from most state and federal water quality regulation.

What emerged this week should have been pushed aggressively long ago if the ag bureaucracy was going to do right by the bay.

Researchers on Wednesday gave two critical pieces of testimony to a governor's commission studying the Pfiesteria outbreaks that have sickened dozens of people, closed parts of three rivers and shaken the regional seafood economy.

The meeting focused on agriculture's substantial contribution to the overfertilization of the bay with nitrogen and phosphorus, which is killing the estuary's sea grasses and robbing oxygen from large volumes of its water.

This excess of "nutrients" is strongly suspected -- though not proved -- to be connected to Pfiesteria.

And the problems that nutrients clearly do cause mean they need to be better controlled anyhow, Donald Boesch, the University of Maryland's top bay research official, told the commission.

The commission heard first from Russ Brinsfield, whose work with his partner, Ken Staver, deserves a lot more credit than it has gotten from ag officials.

Brinsfield, an active farmer and a scientist at the University of Maryland's Wye Research and Education Center, has generated sobering message from studies of two cornfields in the past 12 years.

They have proved that following the fertilizer and animal manure management plans touted by ag officials as the solution to bay pollution doesn't cut it (though it surely helps).

Far too much nitrogen fertilizer still "leaks" into ground water, and eventually into waterways.

Brinsfield and Staver have developed a method of planting winter "cover crops" of rye and other species that reduce this nitrogen pollution dramatically.

It is often argued that theirs is not a perfected solution, but why isn't it?

Ag officials could have and should have been pushing this research into reality for almost a decade.

But it would have meant seeking more funding, would have meant acknowledging the extent of the farm runoff problem, would have meant change.

Even without official enthusiasm, cover crops have slowly and fitfully begun to be adopted, but as recently as a few weeks ago, you could see the ag department's heart still wasn't in real solutions.

When Gov. Parris N. Glendening made available $2 million to assist farmers with cover crops and the drought, the department fought vigorously to spend it all as drought assistance.

It could not have cared less whether any money went to pollution control.

Scarier to agriculture still is what ag scientists had to say to the commission about phosphorus, the other key nutrient polluting the bay.

Until the last decade, it was a tenet of agricultural science that phosphorus sticks to soil particles, and you could keep it out of the water by tried and true soil conservation, or erosion control. (Nitrogen, by contrast, dissolves in water.)

From Brinsfield and Staver's tests, and in data from research around the country, it has been clear to scientists for several years that this isn't always so.

At some point the soil contains so much phosphorus that it begins to escape in dissolved form every time it rains.

The implications of this for farming are huge, particularly where phosphorus-rich poultry manure is used, as in Maryland.

It could mean you would virtually cease spreading the manure generated by hundreds of millions of chickens each year across a significant part of the farmland on the Eastern Shore.

But to clean up the bay, we will have to confront this, the commission heard Wednesday.

It was nice to hear. It was about five years late.

And about 10 years late for the presentation on cover crops and controlling nitrogen.

Ultimately, some of the solutions to farm pollution of the bay lie beyond what Maryland agriculture alone can do.

Far more cooperation from the region's poultry processors is essential, and national nutrient standards to create a level playing field throughout the industry will be needed.

Also, cost assistance for farmers, and money for the kind of research that Brinsfield thinks someday can make much pollution control part of a profitable farming system. If this means people pay a bit more for their food, that's only fair.

Just as critical is doing this without so binding farmers with rules and regulations that they can't or won't farm anymore.

You have to realize, from the farmers' standpoint, there was not even a consensus linking their fertilizers to bay pollution until 10 years ago. Critical tools to control it, like the soil test for nitrogen, didn't exist until the last five years.

Despite this, farmers have made real progress. But the need for more is clear, and they are not well-served by an ag bureaucracy that values expediency over real cleanup.

Agriculture does no worse than any sector of the economy would if allowed to handle, voluntarily and without accountability, its own pollution. But if agriculture wants the burden of protecting the bay, it should be prepared to carry it better than it has.

Pub Date: 9/26/97

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