Md. farmers playing role in efforts to save bay

On The Farm

November 27, 2005|By TED SHELSBY

When it comes to protecting the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland farmers are doing their fair share, says Lewis R. Riley, the state's agriculture secretary.

"Farmers have gotten a lot of undue criticism in the past for polluting the bay," Riley said. "They were blamed entirely for the Pfiesteria outbreak in 1997, and that was not fair. To this day there is still no scientific proof that farmers caused the problem."

In 1997, toxic outbreaks of Pfiesteria piscicida closed portions of three Maryland waterways flowing into the bay, triggering panic over the safety of Maryland seafood and knocking tourism for a loop.

All fingers pointed to runoff of nutrients from grain fields and chicken farms.

"That whole situation was overblown," said Riley. "There was no proof that farmers were to blame, but few people in government would listen."

In response to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's recent "State of the Bay" report, which show continued deterioration of the bay, the Department of Agriculture released its own report on what state farmers are doing to help save the bay.

Agriculture is Maryland's largest land use, and farmers are committed to protecting the bay, the department concluded.

For more than two decades, farmers have spent millions of dollars to match strong state and federal conservation funding.

Appreciation of the benefits of farms to the environment seems to be on the rise.

Riley pointed out that the bay foundation's report acknowledged that "well-managed agriculture land provides many more environmental benefits than developed land."

"At a time when development pressure may be at its greatest, we need to find ways to keep farmers on the land for the benefit of the bay," Riley said.

The Agriculture Department report listed numerous agricultural conservation accomplishments, including:

Since 1984, farmers have spent $11 million, in conjunction with $90 million in government funding, to establish practices that improve the quality of water coming from their farms.

These practices include actions such as putting up fences to keep animals out of waterways feeding into the bay.

Farmers constructed manure-storage structures with concrete floors to prevent rain from washing nutrients into nearby streams and installed watering troughs to keep cattle from going into streams.

Over the past 25 years, the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Fund has permanently preserved almost 250,000 acres of priority farmland for farming, with a public investment of $333 million.

This is the highest ratio of farmland preserved to total land mass in any state.

More than 300 million tons of chicken manure have been transported from the Eastern Shore over the past six years. The manure, which is used in lieu of chemical fertilizer, was shifted to parts of the state where it could be used safely.

A good bit of the manure went to mushroom farms in Southeastern Pennsylvania.

Since changes in the Water Quality Improvement Act were approved by the legislature and signed into law last year, 77 percent of the farmers have developed nutrient-management plans to prevent the runoff of nutrients that could make their way into the bay.

For the first time, farmers in every county have signed up this year for funds to plant winter cover crops.

Cover crops, usually wheat, barley or rye, are planted after farmers harvest their corn and soybeans. They draw excess nutrients from the ground, preventing them from entering waterways.

The department expects 150,000 acres will be planted in cover crops this year, about three times last year's total.

Said Riley: "Farmers understand that the bay did not get in its current condition overnight and they are committed to the restoration efforts for the long haul. They remain among the strongest stewards of the land and will continue to build on their accomplishments."

This year, legislative leaders, including House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller formed a joint commission with the goal of helping farmers implement agricultural practices to reduce pollution of the bay and its tributaries.

Miller said the commission would look for new ways to reduce runoff from farmland while preserving the economic stability of farms.

Its recommendations are to be presented to the General Assembly in January.

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