A mixed progress report from Pennsylvania

ON THE BAY

Cleanup: In 12 years, many farmers have taken steps to control agricultural pollution. But further progress will come at a greater economic cost.

October 04, 2002|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

CENTRE COUNTY, Pa. -- If we want to look at whether we're winning the battle to control bay pollution that runs off the land, there's no better place to start than the Susquehanna River here. It drains more than 40 percent of the Chesapeake's 41 million-acre watershed.

It has more than half the bay's agricultural lands, and among the world's highest concentrations of farm animals and manure, a major pollutant of the bay.

It determines the water quality of Maryland's Chesapeake -- in fact, it is the Chesapeake. From Havre de Grace to the Patuxent River some 80 miles south, about 90 percent of the bay's fresh water is Susquehanna-borne.

Twelve years ago, when the bay cleanup was getting into gear, I visited several dairy farms in Centre County to assess the new attempt throughout the watershed to reduce pollution from agriculture.

I concluded then that the county did not lack for examples of progress and demonstrations of ingenuity by some farmers in keeping polluted runoff out of the bay. But the county as a whole clearly was nowhere near the ambitious reduction of nitrogen and phosphorus that scientists say is needed to restore bay water quality.

A few months ago I went back to Centre County, talking to the same farmers and the same researchers at Penn State, located there. More development sprawls across the landscape now, and one landowner has started a big elk ranch to sell ground-up antlers to the Orient for an aphrodisiac.

A small dairy of around 50 cows that was lauded 12 years ago for making some initial cleanup progress had changed little. Manure is still spread daily, year-round -- which means most of its nitrogen and phosphorus are lost to the environment, instead of being spread each spring when crops can most use them.

On the plus side, the farmer now fences all his cattle from the trout stream that runs through his land. Such streamside fencing, which reduces pollution and erosion, has taken off around Pennsylvania in the last decade.

The farmer now supplements his income by trimming cows' hooves for other farmers. To produce more milk, cows are increasingly confined to the barn, so they don't wear down their hooves naturally. Such confinement concentrates manure more than pasture grazing does and creates more potential for polluted runoff.

Another farm, one of the most environmentally progressive in the county 12 years ago, has increased the cows milked from around 80 to nearly 800. That massive volume of manure -- each cow produces around 100 pounds a day -- must be spread every couple weeks. Neighbors say that when the ground freezes, manure has run onto their properties.

This big farm is using winter cover crops, one of the best techniques for soaking up excess pollution before it runs off to waterways; but few places in Pennsylvania are doing this.

The farmer also belongs to a Crop Management Association, whose members pay $5 to $6 an acre for expert advice on using no more nitrogen, phosphorus and pesticides than they need. But membership is smaller than it was 12 years ago. The cost is too much for farmers who've endured years of low grain prices.

The big farmer plans to invest half a million dollars to upgrade his manure handling -- more to comply with impending federal regulations than from any pressure from Pennsylvania's own, sadly outdated nutrient management law.

Once deemed pioneering, the law exempts all but the largest farms, and lets farmers export and import manure without accounting for how it's spread.

A third farmer plants his crops using no-till or conservation tillage, which minimizes plowing by inserting seeds in slits cut into the field with a special planter.

This is widespread, and encouraged by agriculture experts. It saves labor, energy and cuts soil erosion. But it makes it nearly impossible to work manure into the soil where crops best use its nutrients.

Beth Hirt and Scott Heckman, government nutrient management specialists working with farmers here, clearly know their stuff. They say that overall, things are better than a decade ago, and they show me a couple farms that are very impressive.

But problems identified 12 years ago by ag researchers remain widespread. The voluntary nature of ag cleanup, which means targeting money and effort into the most effective controls and to the places that need them most, is still difficult.

Les Lanyon, an ag researcher at Penn State University, says "we've gotten the easy guys, the farmers who could obviously save money by cutting back [on crop nutrients]."

What is left are lots of farmers for whom cutting back on nutrients enough to meet bay water goals means spending money many of them don't have. More progress, he says, "is going to take a societal commitment [i.e., public spending] to value water quality as much as we expect farmers to."

So goes Centre County, the state of Pennsylvania, the Susquehanna -- and the bay.

Talk of making Pennsylvania's nutrient management law truly effective remains just talk. A visit here in another 12 years could well find a similar situation. The leadership, mandate and money for Pennsylvania to do its share of bay cleanup is not there.

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