Stewards of the land crucial to saving the bay


June 20, 1999|By Mike Burns

FARMERS LIKE to consider themselves the chief stewards of the land, guardians of environmental health. It is, after all, both their calling and their livelihood to produce food that relies on a healthy and ecologically sound land.

Polluted soil and water destroy the farmer's ability to continue to make a living, so he would not knowingly foul the land.

There's a feeling among farmers that for many centuries they were the only people who had to study the workings of their production system, placing them in the vanguard of scientific knowledge about soil and water.

The greater good

Even if you accept that reasoning, there are still a lot of things that farmers have to recognize about the results of their actions. What may best serve an individual's need is not always in the best interest of the larger landscape, the greater society.

That's why we have heated political debate about issues such as subdividing agricultural land for building homes. That's why farmers are required to obey environmental protection rules, even if some farmers may be doing quite well without regulation.

The fundamental issue arose again this month in state hearings on fertilizer control programs, implementing a state law enacted a year ago to control pollution of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

Farmers were in high dudgeon about the onerous requirements on disposal of their animal manure and chemical fertilizers.

The rules were too strict, enveloped in bureaucratic red tape, duplicated existing agricultural practice, and opened their private property to state inspection for compliance.

They also claimed that the immediate cause of the new state law, an outbreak of the toxic Pfiesteria piscicida microbe in the Chesapeake Bay, has not been definitively linked to pollution running off the land and into bay tributaries.

They are correct about inconclusive proof that pollution by farm runoff is the sole cause of the microorganism turning dangerous to fish and to humans. More studies are needed to pinpoint the relationship.

But it's generally accepted that manure and fertilizer run off surface land and into bodies of water.

And that this waste provides extra food that causes harmful algae to massively bloom, and then die off, which drains oxygen from the water and suffocates the fish and prevents beneficial grasses from getting enough sunlight to flourish.

Falling short of 2000 goals

In 1987, the multistate Chesapeake Bay Program, which includes Maryland, set a goal of 40 percent reduction in these nitrogen and phosphorus pollutants entering the bay by 2000.

It is the foundation of the extensive and costly work being done to improve water quality in the estuary. That goal, administrators now say, will not likely be met. And it seems that even tighter controls on surface runoff will be needed.

So exempting farmers from controls of farm chemicals and waste would be a step backward, a retreat toward further decline of the Chesapeake.

Bay's biggest threat

Fact is, nonsource land runoff pollution is the biggest problem for the bay. It may flow from fertilized lawns and golf courses, from parking lots and roadways and public parks. But agriculture is the chief source.

Reducing farm runoff is essential to achieving cleanup goals, regardless of whether conclusive evidence exists that farm runoff "causes" the harmful eruption of Pfiesteria. (Scientists suspect that multiple factors are required to provoke the toxic creature.)

No one likes bureaucratic paperwork and unnecessary rules, in farming or any other occupation. But it is often the only way to ensure that everyone complies with the law.

Yes, the procedure should be made more efficient and less time-consuming. But the goals cannot be abandoned.

If most farmers are already voluntarily following satisfactory nutrient management plans, as many of them claimed at the hearings, they should be able to document that compliance rather easily.

Right to inspect farms

There's another thing that bothers farmers: the right of state agents to enter their property to inspect runoff control operations.

That's a delicate issue, no doubt. But how many of them would want to prevent or delay the inspection of a factory that was dumping toxic pollution into air, water or land? You didn't hear from the Farm Bureau when the on-site pollution inspections were taking place in other sectors.

Other steps must be taken to restore the bay's water quality. Farm runoff is not the only culprit; farmers aren't being picked on.

But they must make serious efforts to effectively limit and dispose of livestock manure and to control chemical fertilizer application, with recordkeeping and monitoring, if the Chesapeake is to prosper.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 6/20/99

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