Farmers make case for the bay


December 14, 2008|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,Special to The Baltimore Sun

There are good reasons why people at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation say that, given a choice, they would rather see farmland stay farmland than be turned into residential development. That's because farms create less pollution for the bay than homes and commercial development, foundation officials say.

This is the primary reason for the warming of relationships between officials of the foundation and farmers, and it can be traced back to early 2006.

For years, the foundation blamed farmers for the bay's declining health. The environmental group acknowledges that that was a mistake. It is now working with farm organizations to improve the profitability of farms so that farmers can continue to work the land.

Unfortunately, the farmers' voice was not as loud at legislative hearings in the General Assembly in past years. And farmers were not being given fair credit for their conservation achievements.

That is beginning to change.

During a presentation last month at a symposium sponsored by the University of Baltimore School of Law, Bill Satterfield, executive director of the Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc., outlined some of the environmental benefits of keeping farmers on the farm.

Satterfield said people who believe that agricultural land contributes more pollution than urban areas would be surprised by the words of Robert Summers, deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment, at a meeting of the Maryland Board of Public Works in May 2007.

Summers provided data showing that agricultural land contributes from 20 percent to 25 percent less nitrogen than developed lands.

Satterfield pointed out that the Delmarva chicken industry has been shrinking, while the human population in the Chesapeake Bay watershed has been increasing.

"If you look at the September 2007 EPA Chesapeake Bay Program report, 'Development Growth Outpacing Progress in Watershed Efforts to Restore the Chesapeake Bay,' you'll see that cumulatively throughout the watershed, agriculture trails human-caused contributions of nitrogen and phosphorus to the bay in 2005."

Human-caused sources of pollution include wastewater, septic and urban runoff.

Satterfield said these human sources of pollution put more nitrogen into the bay than agriculture, by a margin of 44 percent for development versus 40 percent for agriculture. For phosphorus, it's 52 percent for development versus 45 percent for agriculture.

Satterfield drew from a 1999 U.S. Geological Survey study titled "Monitoring Nutrients in the Major Rivers Draining into the Chesapeake Bay" to support his case. The report looked at the nine largest rivers flowing into the bay. It concluded: "Collectively, the Susquehanna, the Potomac, and the James rivers contributed 95 percent of the annual nitrogen load and about 87 percent of the annual phosphorus load from the nine major rivers draining into the Chesapeake Bay from 1990 through 1998."

Satterfield pointed out that the Choptank River - the smallest of the nine, the only one on the Delmarva Peninsula and a river near lots of chicken houses - contributed less than 1 percent of the stream flow, nitrogen load and phosphorus load.

"Farmland helps filter water," Satterfield said. "Impervious surfaces don't. There has been a significant increase in impervious surfaces in recent years throughout the watershed. In the 1990s, impervious surfaces increased by 41 percent while the human population grew by just 8 percent.

"Unpaved, undeveloped land like farmland is good for the bay, and the chicken industry helps keep local farmers in business," he said.

He listed a number of ways that farming is contributing to the restoration of the bay:

* Maryland, Delaware and Virginia chicken farmers have more restrictive rules on manure handling and land application of nutrients than most farmers in the watershed. "Not necessarily more stringent than other farmers in Maryland and Delaware," Satterfield said, "but more stringent than many farmers in the other watershed states."

* Laws enacted in Maryland, Delaware and Virginia in 1998 and 1999 began to require nutrient management plans for all poultry growers and most other farmers on the Delmarva Peninsula.

* Feed given to chickens has been changed to reduce the nutrients in chicken waste.

"One way to reduce the amount of nutrients coming out the rear end of the birds is to keep the feed in them and converted into meat," Satterfield said. "The more feed used by the birds means less manure coming out."

He said that on average it takes less than two pounds of feed to make one pound of meat, without the use of hormones

Since 1998, he said, there has been a 7.6 percent improvement in feed conversion, and that means more nutrients staying in the birds.

According to Roselina Angel, a University of Maryland assistant professor, there was a 75 percent reduction in nitrogen and phosphorus excreted from broiler chickens between 1959 and 2001.

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