Help farmers, help the bay

Environmentalists try to steer funds to cut agricultural pollution

June 05, 2007|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,Sun Reporter

CORDOVA -- The barley fields on Bobby Hutchison's 4,000-acre farm are a healthy-looking deep green. Nearby, nubs of corn that were just planted are on their way to becoming golden stalks. The white frame house and barn are a pastoral scene that hark back to the 1930s, when Hutchison's father bought the Talbot County land and brought his family into the business.

Under the surface, though, the view is less rosy. Farms remain one of the largest sources of pollution for the Chesapeake Bay, delivering huge amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment into the 125,000 miles of rivers that drain into the bay's six-state watershed.

The same fertilizer that helps to grow the corn and peas that sustain life is killing the bay, clogging it with pollutants that are stressing its vibrant marine life.

"When I got into this, I thought I was a good guy, a white hat. Now, there's scarcely an article that I read where I'm not labeled a polluter," Hutchison said.

For decades, policy officials and environmentalists have been pointing to the statistics on agriculture pollution and telling farmers such as Hutchison to clean up their act. But today, there's a bit of a twist:

With the region rapidly losing farms to development, the environmental movement has concluded that to save the bay, it has to save the farms. The view is that a farm that's doing everything right is far better for the bay than a 1,000-home development that will bring its own polluting runoff down newly paved driveways and streets.

Farmers and environmentalists have formed a coalition to try to have several hundred million dollars in the federal farm bill allocated to farm pollution-control measures. The proponents say it will be their best opportunity to get farmers the money they need to plant cover crops, put in stream buffers - and, maybe, change the perception of farmers as major polluters.

"We realized how important the farm bill was to funding conservation for agriculture," said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission.

How a piece of legislation best known for providing subsidies to commercial sugar and corn growers has become the best hope for cleaning up the bay has a lot to do with the commission, which functions as the legislative arm of the federal-state Chesapeake Bay Program. The commission, which is made up of legislators from Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania, advises governors of all three states, as well as the mayor of the District of Columbia, on policies that protect the watershed.

In 2004, its staff investigated which practices would clean up the bay at the lowest cost. Of the seven best-bang-for-the-buck practices, six involved agriculture. The seventh involved sewage treatment plant upgrades, which in Maryland would largely be taken care of through revenues from the "flush tax" passed under the Ehrlich administration.

If the bay states implemented all six agriculture recommendations, they would reach 75 percent of their goals for nitrogen reduction bay-wide, at a cost of $623 million a year.

Under the current farm bill, the federal government is spending about $80 million a year on conservation measures in the bay watershed. The commission is pushing to increase that to $260 million. The states would then match that money, and the farmers would contribute some, too, bringing the total annual spending on agriculture to roughly $700 million a year bay-wide.

That funding would help pay for an alphabet soup of state and federal programs that essentially help stem the flow of sediment, phosphorus and nitrogen into the bay. It would also help farmers get the technical assistance they need to manage runoff.

One of the most popular ways to reduce runoff is the use of cover crops: the government essentially pays farmers to plant barley, rye or winter wheat to help stop erosion and decrease the leaching of pollutants. The money that farmers receive compensates them for their seed and labor. Maryland used to receive federal funds for cover crops, but now it has only state money, agriculture officials said.

During this past growing season, 1,550 Maryland farmers applied to use cover crops on 455,000 acres, according to Louise Lawrence, who runs the resource conservation office at the Maryland Department of Agriculture. But the department had funds to accept requests for only about 65 percent of that acreage. "Our program could have spent between $12 million and $17 million, but we had only $8.3 million to spend," Lawrence said.

Advocates would also like the farm bill to provide more money for the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, or CREP, which pays farmers to take marginal land out of production and use it to restore wetlands and plant buffers. Of the nearly 2 million acres of farmland in Maryland in 2002, about 73,000 were in the CREP program. Maryland pays about 20 percent of the program's costs, while the federal government pays the rest.

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