Farmers Cope With Chesapeake Bay Runoff Rules

February 12, 2016 05:30 PM

A new Farm Bureau poll says three out of four residents living along the Chesapeake Bay say state and local government authority over water resources should top federal authority. Despite AFBF and the EPA’s heated lawsuit over the issue, for those living  and farming along the Bay, regulations are now a way of life. We break down the Chesapeake Clean Water blueprint.

To National Corn Grower President Chip Bowling, the Chesapeake isn't just a bay, but a big part of his life.

 "I’ve spent so much time here as a kid, walking around, barefoot in shorts, swimming, crabbing, fishing, duck hunting and goose hunting,” Bowling said.

 Bowling is an active sportsman and outdoorsman who lives along a tributary of the bay. But like other farmers in the area, his love for the water requires balancing two passions: farming for maximum yields while protecting the water he enjoys.

“This river means as much to me as any environmentalist in this country," Bowling said.

In 2010, under the Clean Water Act, the Environmental Protection Agency published a Total Maximum Daily Load rule, also known as TMDL. That determines the amount of pollutants - such as nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment that may be released on a daily basis from the six states that compose the Chesapeake Bay watershed. It’s all an effort to restore the bay. Each state can establish its own set of TMDL mandates. If it doesn't, the EPA can implement them and farmers must comply.

Agricultural groups like the American Farm Bureau Federation filed a lawsuit in 2011 in an effort to block the mandates, calling them an example of government overreach. The federal government has since filed a brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to ignore AFBF's request.

"EPA is starting with the Chesapeake Bay watershed," predicts Bob Stallman, the former longtime president of the American Farm Bureau Federation. "Unless the Supreme Court steps in, this latest power grab will be coming soon to watersheds all across the country."

Growers, obviously, hope that's not the case.

For Bowling, the bay is always top of mind when he's farming. He says he's careful with chemicals on his farm and uses buffer strips and cover crops.

 "We’re learning to cope because we've had the mandate now for so many years. Most farmers are accustomed to the different regulations that we have to adhere to, but if the rules become more stringent, I don't know how much more Maryland farmers can actually do,” he said.

For example, since the mandates began, every farm has to adapt to the state's nutrient management plan. If farmers don't have an updated plan, they cannot buy fertilizer. 

To ensure he is meeting those mandates, Bowling tests his soil and provides the results to various agencies. “We take soil tests, we do grid soil testing. That gets analyzed. We get that soil test back. Then, I take that test to the state of Maryland and the extension service," Bowling explained. "We have a yield goal. I just can’t say I’m going to grow 200 bushel per acre corn. I have to have the proof I can do that. Then, they set my fertilizer recommendations by my yield goal."

American Soybean Association President Richard Wilkins, who lives along the Delmarva Peninsula, also has to follow his his state's nutrient management plan.

"I’m no longer permitted to make my own decisions on what types of nutrients or what amounts of nutrients to apply to my fields. I now have to hire a certified professional to do that work for me because that’s what’s required by the code. That’s causing a cost to me of about $8,000 a year," Wilkins said.

Delaware producer Aaron Thompson has to comply too. "We’ve grown into what's asked of us now.," he said. "As long as we can continue where we're at, what we're doing is doable. A lot of things we're doing we agree with anyway."

But the process can be a hassle. Thompson raises poultry, which quickly translates into additional paperwork for his operation. “Every time we move manure, whether we are moving manure out of a shed or crusting out of the poultry house, we have to document that," he said.

Has the hassle paid off? Thanks to the effort of farmers and others, water quality in the watershed has improved, according to Bowling.  “The bay was in bad shape. The water quality was terrible," Bowling said. "But I think over time, officials in Maryland and EPA found out it wasn't just farmers who caused pollution at the bay. It was also rural development and urban runoff."

What comes now for producers in the region? Bowling said there's talk of making buffer strips wider, mandating cover crops, and stopping the use of chicken litter on fields close to the bay. 

Watch the AgDay story here:

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