Healthy Farms for a Healthy Bay:
The Benefits of Agricultural Conservation Programs
Maryland PIRG Foundation
As the new home of Maryland PIRG’s environmental work, Environment Maryland can be contacted regarding this news release.
Year after year the Chesapeake Bay is inundated with nutrient pollution as millions of pounds of nitrogen and phosphorous flow into its tributaries from the land and fall into its waters from the air. Every summer the effects of that pollution are revealed in algae blooms and massive dead zones that spread over a third of the bay.
This pollution comes from many sources, including sewage plants, septic tanks, suburban fertilizer use, power plants and car emissions.1 Despite the best efforts of many farmers, agriculture remains one of the leading sources of these nutrients, which run off of both crop and animal farms.2
Maryland law requires farmers to have nutrient management plans so they know just how much fertilizer to use each season and can reduce their runoff by only applying what they need.3 And there are many additional methods, known as best management practices, that farmers can implement on their fields and farms to further reduce the nutrients running off of them.4
But for farmers struggling to make a profit, both nutrient management plans and best management practices can be prohibitively expensive. Without some outside assistance many farmers cannot afford to make these critical reductions.
The solution to help farmers and the bay is simple. Maryland’s tributary teams, working with the Department of Natural Resources, have developed a Tributary Strategy that provides a road-map to clean up the bay. They concluded that funding agricultural conservation practices is the most efficient way to help keep farming sustainable and help protect the bay. Their recommended budget for these practices is $800 million over eight years.5
State programs such as the Maryland Agricultural Cost-Share Program (MACS) help farmers implement conservation practices that keep farming profitable and reduce runoff into the bay. These programs provide cost-share assistance for practices including:
• Cover crops. Winter crops such as wheat, rye, or barley reduce soil erosion and absorb excess nitrogen and phosphorous that remains in the soil after the summer crop has been harvested.
• Buffer zones. Grass and forest buffers along streams slow erosion and trap nutrients before they enter the water system.
• Manure management. Building manure sheds, transporting manure to areas that need it, and developing management plans all help farmers, especially poultry growers, handle their excess waste.
• Technical assistance. Soil conservation districts provide outreach, education, and support to farmers who are interested in or could benefit from these programs. Without this assistance, few farmers have the time to spend researching practices they could implement to reduce their runoff.
Working farms and the Chesapeake Bay are both essential pieces of Maryland’s landscape, history, and heritage. With state cost-share programs, farmers benefit from added financial security in their business and the Chesapeake Bay benefits from healthier waters. Unfortunately, funding for these state cost-share programs has been cut drastically in recent years. Current funding is far short of the levels needed to fully implement these practices across the state.
This report highlights the experiences of two fishermen and five farmers whose lives depend so heavily on the land and the bay. Each individual case study shows the economic difficulties that come from nutrient runoff, the role that conservation practices can play in alleviating that difficulty, and the importance of state costshare programs for making change happen.
Five years ago Maryland entered the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement, pledging to restore the Chesapeake Bay to a healthy state by 2010.6 But halfway to that deadline we are not halfway to that goal.7
Agriculture is the most cost-efficient place to make the necessary nutrient reductions. Most farmers want to do all they can, and they know what needs to be done to further clean up their farms. The will, science, and technology all exist. All that is needed is the funding. To protect Maryland’s farms and clean the Chesapeake Bay, we should:
• Fund the Tributary Strategy recommendations for agriculture and provide funding for the MACS programs and the Manure Services.
• Require the poultry producers such as Perdue and Tyson to provide more financial assistance to their growers in managing their manure.
• Fund the Soil Conservation Districts and the Agriculture Extension Service to provide technical and policy assistance to farmers for implementing conservation programs.