As the sun breaches the horizon in Easton, Maryland, the blanket of fog begins to dissipate, revealing the still waters of an 18-acre wetland and rows of organic vegetables. This is Cottingham Farm, the work of an environmental-lawyer-turned-farmer named Cleo Braver and a host of helping hands.
This 156-acre farm has undergone a variety of changes before arriving at its current state. The land was once used to grow wheat to feed Washington’s army. It then hosted peach orchards in the late 1800s and early 1900s. After the end of World War II, substantial changes in agriculture swept the nation—industrial monocrops, pesticides and fertilizers—and eventually made their way to what is now the Cottingham property. When Braver purchased the land in 1998, it was primarily used to grow corn.
Though Braver’s professional background is in the environmental field, she was unaware of the impact certain agricultural techniques—both on her own property and other area properties—were having on regional waterways. But after spending many evenings peering out at Goldsborough Neck Creek, which winds behind her house before meeting the Miles River and emptying into the Chesapeake Bay, she began noticing how the fish behaved strangely at the surface of the water. After some research, she learned about the creek’s poor water quality and how the heavy use of pesticides and fertilizers was partially responsible.
Braver’s interest in producing healthy food while minimizing her impact prompted her to make a change. By chance, she met Ned Gerber of Chesapeake Wildlife Heritage, who assisted with transforming the property by installing buffer strips to reduce sediment and nutrient runoff, replacing corn with organic vegetables and building a wetland housing 30 species of plants.
Gerber helped Braver utilize the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), a federal USDA Farm Bill program that supports the implementation of habitat on private lands. CREP covered 90 percent of the construction costs for the wetland, and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources picked up the remaining sum. Gerber and Chesapeake Wildlife Heritage continue to manage and maintain the wetland today.
But what Braver is perhaps most proud of on Cottingham is the evolution of the food production there and how it gives people greater access to healthy produce and meat. With the help of farm manager Jenn Djambazov and several employees, Braver now grows at least 50 different organic vegetables and raises pastured pigs. Organic matter in the property’s soil is slowly rebounding, and, to top it off, business is good. Cottingham sells produce through its CSA, as well as in local stores and restaurants.
Braver acknowledges the process has been a lot of work and has required time, expertise and funding from a range of parties. But she maintains that the transition to organic farming is more accessible than many people think, and she advocates for giving it a chance. “I’m not saying convert all of your feed corn to organic vegetables. I’m not saying that all,” she clarifies. With a slight smile at the corners of her mouth, she continues, “But try a piece of it. Take five acres out…”
It could make all the difference.
Images and text by Keith Rutowski
The James River Association has measured an improvement in the overall health of the James River, giving the waterway a “B-” in its latest State of the James report.
Grades are based on four indicators of river health: fish and wildlife populations, habitat, pollution reduction and restoration and protection actions. The river’s score of 61 percent is a four percent increase since the report was last issued in 2013, and it marks the first time the historically-polluted waterway has scored in the “B” range. But according to the report, much work remains to be done, particularly related to sediment pollution in the waterway.
While sediment is a natural part of the environment, excess particles of sand, silt and clay can cloud the water, harming underwater grasses, fish and shellfish. According to the James River Association, sediment pollution in the James has shown little improvement over the past several years, and it continues to pose a significant threat to the long-term health of the river.
According to the report, however, Virginia has made significant strides in reducing nutrient pollution—in particular, pollution from wastewater—as the state works to meet limits set by the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL).
Today, the Chesapeake Bay Program unveiled a new, interactive story map—titled “Cleaner Air, Cleaner Bay”—showing how Clean Air Act regulations, as well as decades of enforcement actions, have led to a steady decline in air pollution across the Chesapeake region.
Polluted air can have quite an impact on the health of local waters: scientists estimate that one third of the nitrogen in the Bay comes from the air through a process known as atmospheric deposition. When our cars, power plants or other sources emit air pollution, it can be carried by wind and weather over long distances until it falls onto land or directly into the water.
Even pollution emitted thousands of miles away can eventually end up in our waterways. While the area of land that drains into the Bay spans six states and 64,000 square miles, the Bay’s “airshed”—the area of land over which airborne pollutants travel to enter the estuary—is nine times that size. Nearly three-quarters of the airborne nitrogen that eventually ends up in the Bay is generated by sources within this airshed, and the remaining 25 percent is emitted from sources even farther away. Which is why policies like the Clean Air Act have been essential in reducing the amount of pollution that reaches the Bay.
“We don’t often think about air as a source of pollution to Chesapeake Bay waters,” said Bay Program Director Nick DiPasquale. “The good news, as illustrated by this story map, is that we have been very successful in reducing airborne emissions through Clean Air Act regulations that have improved water quality in the Bay region.”
Excess nitrogen can fuel the growth of harmful algae blooms that block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and create low-oxygen “dead zones” that suffocate marine life. In addition to national and local regulatory actions, pollution-reducing practices in backyards, in cities and on farms play a critical role in decreasing the flow of nitrogen.
Learn more about air pollution in the Bay region.
Last month, the final load of juvenile oysters was cast into Harris Creek’s 350-acre oyster reef, marking over two billion oysters planted in the sanctuary. One of the largest oyster restoration projects in the world, the reef in Harris Creek—a tributary of Maryland's Choptank River—is the first of ten Chesapeake Bay tributaries needed to fulfill the oyster restoration goals of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement.
The juvenile oysters, known as spat, all came from the University of Maryland's Horn Point Hatchery. Oyster restoration in Harris Creek has been a collaborative effort between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Army Corps of Engineers, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the Oyster Recovery Partnership, the Nature Conservancy and other groups, such as the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Scientists will continue to monitor the health of the Harris Creek oysters as they look toward restoring more tributaries of the Chesapeake.
We first documented Harris Creek in 2012, when roughly a quarter of the construction and seeding at Harris Creek was complete.
Text and images by Will Parson
Videos by Will Parson and Steve Droter