Pollution-reducing practices can improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay and have already improved the health of local rivers and streams, according to new research from the Chesapeake Bay Program partnership.
In a report released today, several case studies from across the watershed show that so-called “best management practices”—including upgrading wastewater treatment technologies, lowering vehicle and power plant emissions, and reducing runoff from farmland—have lowered nutrients and sediment in local waterways. In other words, the environmental practices supported under the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the Farm Bill are working.
Excess nutrients and sediment have long impaired local water quality: nitrogen and phosphorous can fuel the growth of algae blooms and lead to low-oxygen “dead zones” that suffocate marine life, while sediment can block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and suffocate shellfish. Best management practices used in backyards, in cities and on farms can lower the flow of these pollutants into waterways.
Data collected and analyzed by the Bay Program, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) have traced a number of local improvements in air, land and water to best management practices: a drop in power plant emissions across the mid-Atlantic has led to improvements in nine Appalachian watersheds, upgrades to the District of Columbia's Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant have lowered the discharge of nutrients into the Potomac River and planting cover crops on Eastern Shore farms has lowered the amount of nutrients leaching into the earth and reduced nitrate concentrations in groundwater.
“In New Insights, we find the scientific evidence to support what we’ve said before: we are rebuilding nature’s resilience back into the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem, and the watershed can and will recover when our communities support clean local waters,” said Bay Program Director Nick DiPasquale in a media release.
But scientists have also noted that while we have improved water quality, our progress can be overwhelmed by intensified agriculture and unsustainable development, and our patience can be tested by the “lag-times” that delay the full benefits of restoration work.
“This report shows that long-term efforts to reduce pollution are working, but we need to remain patient and diligent in making sure we are putting the right practices in place at the right locations in Chesapeake Bay watershed,” said UMCES President Donald Boesch in a media release. “Science has and will continue to play a critical role informing us about what is working and what still needs to be done.”
UMCES Vice President for Science Applications Bill Dennison echoed Boesch’s support for patience and persistence, but added a third P to the list: perspiration. “We’ve got to do more to maintain the health of this magnificent Chesapeake Bay,” he said.
“We’ve learned that we can fix the Bay,” Dennison continued. “We can see this progress… and it’s not going to be hopeless. In fact, it’s quite hopeful. This report makes a good case for optimism about the Chesapeake Bay.”
Chesapeake Bay Program partners have improved how states track on-farm conservation, helping farmers get credit where it is due and ensuring states know what has been done to meet their pollution reduction goals.
Under the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), or “pollution diet,” each state in the watershed must report their annual progress in promoting agricultural conservation. To streamline this process, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has integrated state and federal data about what conservation practices have been put in place, where. Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia used this new dataset to report their conservation practices in 2012, improving their ability to track their progress toward improving water quality in rivers, streams and the Chesapeake Bay.
While agricultural runoff is one of the watershed’s leading sources of nutrient and sediment pollution, on-farm conservation can lower the amount of nitrogen, phosphorous, sand and silt washing off of farmland. Conservation tillage, cover crops and nutrient management planning can also reduce a farm’s operating costs and improve a farm’s production.
Image courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture
Indeed, a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) report on the impact of cropland conservation in the region showed that conservation measures—a number of them put in place voluntarily and made possible through the Farm Bill—have improved and protected water quality and soil health. Published as part of the USDA’s Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP), the report, which uses data collected between 2003 and 2006 and in 2011, showed a five, six and eight percent drop in phosphorous, nitrogen and sediment runoff into the Bay. While Chesapeake Bay Program partners work closely with the USDA, this particular report is not part of the Bay Program's TMDL-related tracking efforts.
“The good work of Chesapeake Bay landowners has generated substantial progress in a short period of time, but more needs to be done,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a media release. “It is critical that Congress act now to pass a Farm Bill that provides the full array of programs and incentives to build on these efforts.”
Learn more about the reporting of conservation practices in the watershed or read about the impacts of conservation practices on cropland in the region.
Growing scientific evidence shows that pathogens, antimicrobials and hormones are increasingly appearing in livestock and poultry manure across the United States, according to a literature review prepared by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Image courtesy USDAgov/Flickr
These “contaminants of emerging concern”—so named because their risks to human health and the environment may be unknown—could pose threats to plants, animals and people if rain, spills or storage failures push contaminated manure into rivers and streams.
The flow of manure into our waterways has long been linked to nutrient pollution. According to 2010 estimates, manure accounts for 19 percent of the nitrogen and 26 percent of the phosphorous entering the Chesapeake Bay, where it fuels the growth of algae blooms and creates dead zones that suffocate marine life. But research now shows that more of the nation’s manure could contain a new class of pollutants that could have serious implications for water quality.
Manure can contain pathogens, for instance, that could infect humans if allowed to contaminate our drinking water or food crops. It can contain antibiotics and vaccines that could facilitate the development of antimicrobial resistance. And it can contain natural and artificial hormones that, even in low concentrations, could affect the reproductive health and fitness of fish, frogs and other marine life.
Indeed, good manure management has become a key conservation practice in the watershed, where four states—Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia—rank among the ten highest manure-generating states, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). As livestock and poultry production shift to larger, more concentrated operations, facilities produce more manure than can be used on the surrounding farmland. If this manure is properly applied, stored and transported, it can be kept out of rivers, streams and the Bay.
Learn more about contaminants in livestock and poultry manure.
Streams across the United States are suffering a decline in health, as human development alters stream flow and pushes pollutants into the water.
Between 1993 and 2005, scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) sampled the algal, macroinvertebrate and fish communities in thousands of streams across the nation. According to a report released by the USGS National Water-Quality Assessment Program, the health of at least one of these three aquatic communities was altered in 83 percent of the streams assessed.
Healthy streams are critical to our communities. Streams provide drinking water, control floods, support commercial and recreational fisheries, and bring aesthetic value into our lives. But stream flow that is altered by human activities can impact native fish, and excess pollutants can alter plant and animal communities.
According to the USGS, tens of thousands of dams and diversions have contributed to the modification in stream flow of 86 percent of the waters assessed in this study. Excess nutrients have altered algal communities, while excess pesticides have had an adverse affect on macroinvertebrates, many of which can be harmed by the toxins found in insecticides.
But one in five streams in urban and agricultural areas was found to be in good health. This finding suggests that green development, on-farm conservation and other best management practices can help us maintain healthy streams alongside continued development.
Read more about the The Quality of Our Nation’s Waters.
Cover crops, streamside trees and nutrient management plans: all are exceptional ways to reduce nutrient pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. And for father and son duo Elwood and Hunter Williams, restoring the Bay begins with conservation practices and a shift in mentality.
“We knew coming down the road that we needed to do a better job with keeping the water clean,” Hunter said. “We decided that if there was going to be a problem with the streams it wasn’t going to be us.”
Excess nutrients come from many places, including wastewater treatment plants, agricultural runoff and polluted air. When nitrogen and phosphorus reach waterways, they can fuel the growth of large algae blooms that negatively affect the health of the Bay. In order to reduce these impacts, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has implemented a Bay “pollution diet,” known as the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL).
Since the passing of the TMDL, many farmers in the watershed have felt the added pressure of the cleanup on their shoulders, but for the Williams family, having the foresight to implement best management practices (BMPs) just seemed like the environmentally and fiscally responsible thing to do.
”We don’t want to get to a point where regulations are completely out of control,” Hunter explained. “Farmers know what they’re putting on the ground so we have the ability to control it. Most people who have yards don’t have a clue what they’re putting on the ground when they use fertilizer. The difference has to be made up by the farmers because we know exactly what is going on to our soil.”
The Williams family began implementing BMPs on Misty Mountain Farm in 2006 by teaming up with the Potomac Valley Conservation District (PVCD). The government-funded non-profit organization has been providing assistance to farmers and working to preserve West Virginia’s natural resources since 1943.
The PVCD operates the Agricultural Enhancement Program (AgEP), which has steadily gained popularity among chicken farmers and livestock owners located in the West Virginia panhandle and Potomac Valley. While these two districts make up just 14 percent of West Virginia’s land mass, these regions are where many of the Bay’s tributaries begin—so it is important for area landowners to be conscious of pollutants entering rivers and streams.
AgEP is designed to provide financial aid and advice to farmers in areas that the Farm Bill does not cover. PVCD is run in a grassroots fashion, as employees collaborate with local farmers to pinpoint and meet their specific needs.
“It [AgEP] has been very well received,” said Carla Hardy, Watershed Program Coordinator with the PVCD. “It’s the local, state and individuals saying, “These are our needs and this is how our money should be spent.” Farmers understand that in order to keep AgEP a voluntary plan they need to pay attention to their conservation practices.”
Hunter admits the hardest part of switching to BMPs was changing his mindset and getting on board. Originally, Hunter was looking at the Bay’s pollution problems as a whole, but with optimistic thinking and assistance from PVCD, he realized that the best way to overcome a large problem was to cross one bridge at a time.
It wasn’t long before the Williams family started to see results: fencing off streams from cattle led to cleaner water; building barns to overwinter cows allowed them to grow an average of 75 pounds heavier than before, making them more valuable to the farm.
By using BMPs, the Williams family has set a positive example for farmers across the watershed, proving that with hard work and a ‘sky is the limit’ mentality, seemingly impossible goals can be met.
Hunter points out, “We are proud to know that if you are traveling to Misty Mountain Farm you can’t say, “Hey these guys aren’t doing their part.”
Video produced by Steve Droter.
This winter saw an increase in waterfowl along Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay shoreline and Atlantic coast.
While pilots and biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) counted fewer diving and dabbling ducks this winter than they did in the 2012 Midwinter Waterfowl Survey, these same crews counted more geese.
According to a DNR news release, both Canada geese and snow geese were “noticeably more abundant during this year’s survey,” with crews counting 462,000 Canada geese—a three-year high—and 83,300 snow geese—a five-year high. Biologists have attributed the boost in goose numbers to two factors: last spring’s successful nesting season and December snow cover in New York and southern Canada, which encouraged geese to migrate into the Bay region right before the survey was taken.
While more geese could mean more damage to area farms—as the birds forage on green cover crops and grain crops—most farmers “have learned to deal with the problem,” said Larry Hindman, wildlife biologist and Waterfowl Project Leader with DNR. Fluttering plastic flags, bald eagle effigies placed in the middle of fields and the loud bang of a rifle or shotgun have all proven effective at deterring persistent geese, Hindman said, and those farmers who need extra help can find assistance and advice in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Damage Management program.
Resident Canada geese can pose a problem for rural, suburban and urban residents alike, and are considered overabundant in the region. While the birds do provide hunters with a chance for recreation, resident geese can overgraze wetlands and lawns and leave their droppings to pollute local rivers and streams. While the Midwinter Waterfowl Survey does not make a distinction between resident and migratory geese—as both stocks look the same during an aerial survey—DNR researchers do monitor the resident population using leg bands recovered from hunters.
The Midwinter Waterfowl Survey is used as an index of long-term wintering waterfowl trends. The estimates measure waterfowl populations along the Atlantic Flyway, which is a bird migration route that follows North America’s Atlantic Coast and Appalachian Mountains.
Read the full waterfowl survey results on the DNR website.
Fencing off a stream from livestock, planting trees along a soon-to-be-shaded river or creating marshland to provide habitat to fish, frogs and birds: restoration projects such as these would not be possible without the hundreds of watershed groups working across the Chesapeake Bay region, or the networking needed to connect restoration partners with their peers.
Each year, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF)—which supports Bay restoration with grants offered through the Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund—gives restoration partners a break from their intensive on-the-ground work with the Chesapeake Bay Agricultural Networking Forum. Last week, this forum brought more than 100 grantees together in Staunton, Va., to discuss restoration successes, challenges and solutions to common problems, networking with each other and forming invaluable partnerships.
“Our grantees really are the front lines of the Bay restoration effort,” said Amanda Bassow, NFWF Director of Chesapeake Programs. “We need to arm them with all the knowledge, resources and experience we can. These are the people who are accelerating progress, engaging new partners and new landowners, and continually figuring out new ways to get the job done.”
The forum began with a rapid-fire update from grantees working on close to a dozen projects, ranging from forest buffer plantings to the engagement of so-called "absentee landowners”—or those landowners who do not work their own farmland—in conservation. Field trips in and around Staunton gave participants a hands-on look at areas in which progress is underway. On the Merrifield and Ford farms, for instance, located in the Poague Run watershed, landowners have restored stream banks, protected streamside forests and excluded livestock from sensitive waterways.
“Grantees tell me they love the forum because they get re-energized about their work,” Bassow said. “It’s a community of doers, not finger pointers, and when you get them all in a room together, it’s a powerful thing to see.”
Chesapeake Bay Program Director Nick DiPasquale moderated a session at the forum, and found the event to be a meaningful one.
“For farmers and farm service providers, conservation district staff, government officials, funders and non-governmental organizations, this was a great exchange of ideas and approaches on implementing effective and innovative agricultural best management practices,” DiPasquale said. “This forum should help the community save money, clean up local waterways and keep farmers farming while using creative ways to manage nutrients on their land.”
Read more about the NFWF and the Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund.
The restoration of forested areas along creeks and streams in the Chesapeake Bay watershed continues to decline.
Called riparian forest buffers, these streamside shrubs and trees are critical to environmental restoration. Forest buffers stabilize shorelines, remove pollutants from contaminated runoff and shade streams for the brook trout and other fish species that thrive in cooler temperatures and the cleanest waters.
While more than 7,000 miles of forest buffers have been planted across the watershed since 1996, this planting rate has experienced a sharp decline. Between 2003 and 2006, Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania planted an average of 756 miles of forest buffer each year. But in 2011, the entire watershed planted just 240 miles—less than half its former average.
Farmers and agricultural landowners have been the watershed’s driving force behind forest buffer plantings, using the conservation practice to catch and filter nutrients and sediment washing off their land. But a rise in commodity prices has made it more profitable for some farmers to keep their stream buffers planted not with trees, but with crops. This, combined with an increase in funding available for other conservation practices, has meant fewer forest buffers planted each year.
But financial incentives and farmer outreach can keep agricultural landowners planting.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), for instance, has partnered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and others to implement conservation practices on Pennsylvania farms. Working to put the state’s Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) funds to use, CBF provides farmers across the Commonwealth with technical assistance and financial incentives to plant forest buffers, often on the marginal pastureland that is no longer grazed or the less-than-ideal hayland that is rarely cut for hay.
The CBF Buffer-Bonus Program has encouraged Amish and Mennonite farmers to couple CREP-funded forest buffers with other conservation practices, said Dave Wise, Pennsylvania Watershed Restoration Manager with CBF. The reason, according to Wise? “Financial incentives … make it attractive for farmers to enroll.”
Image courtesy Chesapeake Bay Foundation
For each acre of forest buffer planted, CBF will provide Buffer-Bonus Program participants with up to $4,000 in the form of a “best management practice voucher” to fund conservation work. This comes in addition to CREP cost-share incentives, which fund forest buffer planting, post-planting care and annual rental fees that run from $40 to $350 per acre.
While Wise has witnessed what he called a “natural decline” in a program that has been available for more than a decade, he believes cost-share incentives can keep planting rates up, acting as “the spoonful of sugar" that encourages farmers to conserve in a state with the highest forest buffer planting rates in the watershed.
“There are few counties [in the Commonwealth] where buffer enrollments continue to be strong, and almost without exception, those are counties that have the Buffer-Bonus Program,” Wise said.
In 2007, the six watershed states committed to restoring forest buffers at a rate of 900 miles per year. This rate was incorporated into the Chesapeake Bay Executive Order, which calls for 14,400 miles of forest buffer to be restored by 2025. The Chesapeake Forest Restoration Strategy, now out in draft form, outlines the importance of forests and forest buffers and the actions needed to restore them.
Farmers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed might soon have an easier time putting pollution credits on the market.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has awarded $2.5 million to five Bay organizations to improve the infrastructure behind water quality trading markets, which allow buyers to purchase "pollution credits" for reductions or cuts in pollution that landowners have made on their properties.
From better determining demand for credit to improving outreach to hundreds of eligible farmers, the planned improvements aim to benefit both the land and those who work it. A farmer who uses conservation practices to reduce his runoff of nutrients or sediment, for instance, can produce on-farm energy savings and water quality credits while improving the environmental health of his land.
Watershed recipients of Conservation Innovation Grants program funding include the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Maryland Department of Agriculture, the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation and the Borough of Chambersburg, Pa.
The Conservation Innovation Grants program is administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). This year, an additional $23.5 million has been awarded to more than 50 recipients across the nation for innovative and conservation-minded agricultural practices, from improving soil health to increasing on-farm pollinator habitat.
Drivers honk at each other, passing by layers of parking lots and shopping centers; armies of workers wait for a bus; food carts occupy every corner; and pedestrians tow their children through the cement jungle, ignoring crosswalk signals and jumping in front of cars without the slightest bit of fear.
Tucked away in this impervious kingdom called Prince George’s County is a place of natural beauty, where worms dig through compost, chickens play tag and honeybees busily buzz. Here at ECO City Farms, every inch of ground is precious; a blanket of veggies and fruits is shadowed by rows of hanging pots. The completely solar and geo-thermal powered farm located in Edmonston, Md., raises chickens and ducks, keeps bees and grows enough crops for a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) operation--all on one acre of land.
Image courtesy Eco City Farms/Flickr
Also known as Engaged Community Offshoots, ECO City Farms manages land and grows food in ways that benefit the Chesapeake Bay watershed: with no chemical fertilizers, and no petro-based or non-organic treatments, pesticides, herbicides or fungicides.
Impressive, but perhaps impossible? ECO City relies on natural processes to deter insects. Did you know planting marigolds next to your tomato plants will keep insects away? These simple but natural technologies define ECO City’s farming methods and ensure that the chemicals typically used in gardening operations do not end up in our food or the nearby Anacostia River and Chesapeake Bay.
ECO City implements farming methods that are healthy for the Bay watershed and its residents, but it also understands the importance of educating and engaging the local community.
The organization's tagline is "creating a just and sustainable world," a mission statement that trumps the money-making agendas of any commercial big-box farm. ECO City understands its role to exceed the agricultural industry and remains committed to connecting community members to their food.
ECO City educates and empowers local residents, giving them the tools and knowledge they need to kickstart their own urban agriculture operation. Dedicated to keeping food in the hands of the people, ECO City is not your average farm.
Image courtesy Eco City Farms/Flickr
What's new at ECO City:
Located in the residential neighborhood of Edmonston, Md., a Washington, D.C., suburb, the farm hosts volunteer Saturday work days and tours of the farm.
The New Urban/Immigrant Farmer Training program teaches interested adults the tenants of urban farming over the course of a year, and a new DIY (Do It Yourself) Green Building Series covers how to capture and reuse rain water, how to build a hoop house, how to create a green roof and more!
A new commercial kitchen will allow the farm to offer educational cooking courses and to turn produce into products (basil becomes pesto sauce, tomatoes and peppers become salsa!)
Image courtesy ECO City Farms/Flickr
Here are some ECO City methods that you may be able to take home:
Image courtesy ECO City Farms/Flickr
Luke Brubaker lives in the house his father bought in 1929. His grandchildren play in the same creeks he played in as a child, and he farms the same land that his father farmed. But Luke's land in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, has changed drastically since the days of his father; it is under pressure from higher rates of development (the large housing development at the edge of his property is one example); there is an increased use of pesticides, auto exhaust, and other chemicals that can leak into his groundwater; and a decrease in the amount of forested land allows nutrients from soil and bacteria from animal manure to easily run off into waterways instead of being absorbed by trees.
As Brubaker's land has changed, so has the agriculture industry; soaring energy and production costs and a plethora of environmental regulations mean that selling a gallon of milk isn't as easy as it used to be.
Nevertheless, Luke treats his land in a way that recognizes its vulnerability, farming it in a way that ensures it will be fertile in the future. His mindful practices have awarded him with productive land and healthy cattle, as well as a U.S. Dairy Sustainability Award, a Center for Advanced Energy Studies/Idaho National Laboratory Award for “Outstanding Achievement in Energy," and recognition as 2011 Innovative Dairy Farmer of the Year.
"I hope that this land will not only be preserved for farming," explains Luke, "but that the soils will be preserved on the land so that my grandkids can farm this, so that this can be food for the future."
Luke has grown his father's 18-cow dairy farm to a 900-cow operation, and hopes to keep the business in the family. Because he cares about the longevity of his land, he is concerned less with the quantity of milk he produces, and is instead concentrated on the reuse of energy and the quality of his products.
And while many farmers say that new regulations threaten their financial stability, Luke insists that following and exceeding these guidelines have helped him save money and keep his land in good health for future generations.
"It's an economic value to keep the water on the field, and keep the nutrients on the field, so it only makes sense to do good conservation practices," explains Luke. "This is what’s so important: that farmers realize the economic value of conservation practices, rather than doing it because they have to do it. And sometimes over the years, it has taken me time to realize that some of the old ways that we used to have aren’t the best ways."
On my tour of Brubaker Farm, the relationship between Luke's conservation ethic and economic good sense becomes obvious; the farm reuses everything and anything possible, especially cow manure!
"The more land that we can preserve and farm properly, the more soil we're going to have; we're going to be able to grow the food of our nation. That's very important to me," says Luke. "There's a great livelihood that can be achieved from good agricultural practices."
But what are "good" agricultural practices? Here are a few that are being implemented on Brubaker Farm:
Power in poop
At Brubaker Farm, the cows are kept in an open-air, temperature-controlled, shelter where they are able to roam from building to building. Their bedding is replaced regularly to keep them comfortable, and their feed, most of which is grown on the farm, is calculated to the tee.
"Our cows are fed probably better than some of our families are fed because we measure and weigh every bit of feed so they get the right nutrition," says Luke.
The cow's manure is swept away from the shelter every few hours. This differs from "free range" farms, where cattle are permitted to roam (and even sometimes, poop) where they please. The advantage of keeping the cattle in a controlled environment is that cows can remain cool in the summertime (they prefer cooler temperatures), and their manure is not laying around somewhere in the grass, or even worse, in a stream.
In fact, Brubaker understands his cow's manure to be just as valuable as the milk they produce. After an automatic cleaner collects manure from the cattle shelters, the manure goes into a machine called a "digester," which converts manure into methane gas that can be used (and sold) as an energy source.
On the Brubaker Farm, the solid manure wastes are converted into bedding for the cows. After it goes through the digester, it is pathogen free, making it the perfect, safe option for keeping cows comfortable.
The liquid manure is converted into electricity. Luke sells enough electricity to power 200 homes. The rest he reclaims as energy to fuel his farm's operations; the electricity is used to heat and pasteurize the milk before it is taken off the property, and to clean the cows’ towels (each cow gets his or her own cleaning towel!)
Luke is in the process is making a solar hot water system so he can make his own hot water from the farm's solar panels, which now provide electricity to 100 homes at peak sun.
The Brubaker's creative use of excess poop/energy has opened a whole new market to the family; in a recent year, they generated more profit from selling electricity than from selling milk!
No till farming
In his 1943 book, Plowman's Folly, Edward H. Faulkner said, "the truth is that no one has ever advanced a scientific reasoning for plowing." Yet, tilling soil is still protocol for many farms.
Traditionally, soil is loosened by a plow, or tilled, so that oxygen, water, and nutrients can reach the area where a crop's roots grow. Today, tilling requires the use of heavy machinery, which requires both fuel and labor to operate.
When the soil is left in place, it is able to maintain its structure and better hold water. Not tilling the soil cuts back on fuel and labor costs. It also means that the soil is not loosened, and is therefore not as prone to erosion.
"After you no till for a couple of years, your soil gets roots," explains Luke. "It’s kind of like a sponge, and it allows the water to permeate into that sponge and holds it there. If you have a dry year, you’re going to have a better crop, because it holds that moisture there just like a sponge."
"Cover crops" are vegetation that holds the soil in place with its roots, preventing erosion even when a commercial crop is not being grown.
Cover crops shade the soil, preventing sunlight from fueling fast-growing weeds, and keeping the soil cool. Cover crops also discharge excess organic materials into the soil through their roots. These materials provide food for soil microbes and replenish nutrients that a future commercial crop, will benefit from.
If a field is fertilized heavily, cover crops can take up any excess fertilizer that was not used by a commercial crop; this will decrease the amount of nutrient pollution leaching into the groundwater and nearby streams.
A stream on Brubaker's property is a favorite swimming hole for his grandchildren, and a favorite habitat for brook trout. Luke usually keeps his cattle in a controlled environment because keeping cattle away from this stream minimizes the sediment and bacteria pollution going into the waterway.
"One of the best things that small farms can do is to keep their cattle out of the streams," says Luke. "If the cattle have access to the whole stream and banks, they have a tendency to break the shores down, and that’s what causes sediment (pollution). We have fences to keep the cattle out so they aren’t breaking the banks of the stream."
Stream bank fencing also prevents rainwater, and the nutrients it carries, from ending up in waterways. Keeping these products on the field, instead of in the waterways, is not only beneficial to wildlife and plants, but to the farmer himself- it means more nutrients and water stay in place to fuel crop growth!
On Brubaker's farms, streamside trees (known as forest buffers) shade the stream, keeping it cool enough for trout. The tree's roots that stabilize stream banks and absorb any nutrients before they end up in the stream.
"It’s important for somebody else that the streams are clean, but it’s important for us (farmers) that our nutrients and water are on our fields," says Luke. "We know that when we have a clean stream, we know that our nutrients and our water are staying on our fields like they’re supposed to.
Learn more about sustainable agriculture in the Chesapeake Bay watershed:
Maryland farmers planted nearly 430,000 acres of cover crops in fall 2011 through the state’s Cover Crop Program, the largest planting in Maryland history, according to the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA). The 2011 figure exceeds Maryland’s 2013 Chesapeake Bay pollution reduction milestone for cover crop plantings by 21 percent.
Cover crops are widely considered one of the most cost-effective and environmentally sustainable ways to control soil erosion and reduce nutrient pollution to the Bay and its rivers in winter. Collectively, the 429,818 acres of cover crops planted in 2011 will prevent an estimated 2.58 million pounds of nitrogen (60 percent of Maryland’s total pollution reduction milestone goal) and 86,000 pounds of phosphorus from entering the state’s waterways.
Farmers plant cover crops such as rye, wheat and barley in the fall after summer crops are harvested. As they grow, cover crops recycle unused plant nutrients remaining in the soil, protect fields against wind and water erosion, and help improve the soil for next year’s crop.
To learn more about Maryland’s cover crop program, visit MDA’s website.
As the sun rises, bald eagles swoop from tree to ground; Canada geese honk happily in a nearby field; and a crew of scientists, boaters and trappers begin a day’s work at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Cambridge, Maryland. The mission? To keep the marshes that fringe the shoreline along this part of the Chesapeake Bay from disappearing.
Although wetland degradation can be attributed to a variety of factors, the field crew at Blackwater is focusing their efforts on one cause they believe can be easily controlled: an invasive rodent called nutria. Native to South America, nutria were introduced to the United States in the early 20th century for their fur, which was thought to be valuable at the time. These 20-pound animals with the build of a beaver and the tail of muskrat may seem harmless, but their effect on marshes across the United States has been devastating.
An overindulgent diet of wetland plants, a lack of natural predators and ridiculously high reproduction rates are characteristics that have led nutria to be labeled as an “invasive species.” Simply put, this means they aren’t originally from here, and they harm the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem.
Nutria eat 25 percent of their body weight in marsh plants per day. Let’s put that into perspective: if you’re a 120-pound woman, you’d have to eat 30 pounds of plants each day to eat like a nutria. And since marsh plants don’t weigh all that much, you’d find yourself eating a lot of vegetation.
To make matters worse, nutria tear up the roots of marsh plants when they eat, making it impossible for new plants to grow. As a result, large areas of marshland erode away to open water.
“One property owner on Island Pond had a 300-acre marsh property. Now there’s about 30 acres left,” describes Stephen Kendrot, who works on the Nutria Eradication Project for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services (APHIS).
Aerial photographs of Blackwater depict a similar scenario. The refuge has lost 50 percent of its wetlands since nutria were introduced in the 1940s. The photos below depict Blackwater in 1939 (left) and 1989 (right.)
Certainly, this loss is a tragedy for Eastern Shore landowners. And while residents may be disappointed that they can’t look out at a beautiful marsh view or help their children find frogs in their backyard wetland, loss of marshland also results in irreversible ecological consequences.
Marsh plants are incredibly beneficial to the environment because they:
In the early 1990s, U.S. Fish and Wildlife staff fenced off random quarter-acre plots in Blackwater’s marsh, excluding nutria but allowing other animals to enter. After several growing seasons, the marsh plants inside the enclosure began to grow, while the vegetation outside the fencing declined. This finding proved that nutria was the direct cause of marsh loss.
Like most rodents, nutria are prolific breeders. This means that those areas with just one or two nutria won’t stay that way for long. Female nutria are fertile as young as six months old, and they can become pregnant again just 24 hours after giving birth. (Essentially, a lifetime of being pregnant.)
“Sometimes we miss a couple animals and they might find each other and start a new population,” explains Kendrot.
As the nutria problem grew serious, federal and state agencies, universities and private organizations partnered to form the Nutria Eradication Project. The project team is made up of academically trained biologists and Eastern Shore natives who have been trapping nutria since they were kids.
Although nutria have been eradicated from Blackwater since the project took off in 2002, there are still substantial populations in other, less densely populated areas. These are the spots the Nutria Eradication Project is now targeting.
Today, Kendrot and I tag along with the field team to survey for nutria on the Wicomico River, an area where residents have reported nutria.
Mario Eusi, who has been trapping nutria for years, drives our boat down the Wicomico River and turns into a narrow inlet. This area is privately owned, but the landowners have granted the team permission to access their property. This type of support is critical to the project’s success.
“About half the nutria we find are on private property,” Kendrot explains. “And almost all the property on the Wicomico is privately owned.”
Consequently, the team dedicates lots of time to public outreach. Kendrot and other team members make phone calls and sit down at kitchen tables across Wicomico and Dorchester counties to explain the harmful effects of nutria. The team must assure landowners that if they grant access to their land, they are preventing their property from disappearing. From this perspective, the federally funded Nutria Eradication Project is actually a public service to waterfront landowners – the team does their best to prevent residents’ marshland from sinking into the Chesapeake Bay.
Today we are tracking nutria, which means looking for signs such as scat, paw prints, chewed plants, flattened grass beds – anything to prove “a nutria was here.” A good tracker must have both a keen knowledge of what nutria signs look like and the sharp senses to catch them, regardless of weather conditions or the speed of the boat cruising down the river. The team also tracks nutria through other methods, including dogs, radio collars and hidden video cameras.
Finding the “nute” is the bigger half of the battle. “Trapping is the easy part,” the field team assures me. Team members must first find signs of nutria before they can decide where to set traps in the spring. I admit: I’m relieved I won’t have to see any nutria in traps today.
The tide is rising, so we have to be quick; soon, the water will wash away paw prints and make it difficult to identify nesting areas. Eusi points out the difference between nutria and muskrat scat. His eye for detail and ingrained awareness of the great outdoors makes him an excellent tracker.
Suddenly, we find a nesting site: an area of flattened grasses that looks like someone has been sitting in the marsh. The signs multiply, and soon the team is out of the boat, bushwhacking through twelve-foot high cattails. I try to catch up, but my foot gets stuck in the mud, and soon I am up to my hips in wetland!
As we continue through the marsh, we find one of the most conclusive signs of an active nutria population: a 10-foot-wide “eat-out,” or an open area where nutria have eaten all of the grasses and their roots. These bare, muddy areas, stripped of all vegetation, eventually erode away into open water.
When we spot a larger “eat-out” not a few steps away, it occurs to me that the two areas will likely merge into one giant mud flat. The cattails I just bushwhacked and the mud I sank into will soon disappear forever into the Wicomico River.
Since we have successfully tracked nutria on the Wicomico today, the team can now think about how to trap the animals.
When a nutria is trapped, it drowns quickly. Team members record the age and sex of each nutria to determine if it is newly born or if it was missed during the previous round of trapping. One way to estimate a nutria’s age is to weigh its eyeballs, because the lenses grow at a fixed rate throughout its life.
Dead nutria have another benefit: carcasses left in the wild provide food for bald eagles, turtles and other wildlife.
While the term “eradication” may conjure up images of ruthless killers, the field team does not seek to conquer these rodents. Rather, the goal is to preserve the wetlands that support the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem and define the culture and economy of Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
The team’s work also benefits the region’s economy as a whole. It’s estimated that nutria cost Maryland $4 million in lost revenue in 2004 alone. The Bay’s crab and oyster fisheries are just two of countless industries that depend on coastal wetlands. The natural filtering capabilities of marsh plants cost millions of dollars to imitate with wastewater treatment plants. Nutria eradication doesn’t just save our wetlands; it also saves our money.
Nutria are often confused with beavers and muskrats, two native and ecologically important mammals. The Fish and Wildlife Service offers a nutria identification page on its website to help you distinguish the difference between these three similar-looking species.
If you think you may have nutria on your property, you should contact the Nutria Eradication Team.
In Louisiana, the nutria infestation problem is even worse. The current generation is carrying on the traditions of fur-bearing trappers thanks to the state’s Nutria Control Program, which pays trappers per nutria they collect. The state even promotes nutria trapping by providing recipes for dishes such as smoked nutria and nutria chili!
Real fur may no longer be a faux pas for the environmentally conscious fashionista. Coats and hats made from nutria fur are considered by many to be “green and guilt-free.” George Costanza thought so, anyway: in an episode of Seinfeld, he replaces Elaine’s lost sable hat with another made from the fur of this invasive rodent.
When most people talk about forests, they mention hunting, or the timber market, or environmental conservation. But when Susan Benedict discusses her forest – a 200,000 acre property in Centre County, Pennsylvania – she talks about family.
“We all work together. This is a family operation,” she says as we drive to her property along a Pennsylvania State Game Lands road that winds through the Allegany Mountains from Black Moshannon to Pennsylvania-504.
(Image courtesy Susan Benedict)
A desire to keep the mountaintop property in the hands of her children and grandchildren motivated Benedict to implement sustainable forestry practices, participate in Pennsylvania’s Forest Stewardship Program and certify the property under the American Tree Farm System. By managing her forest in an environmentally conscious way, Benedict ensures that stands of ash, red oak and beech will be around in a hundred years for her great-grandchildren to enjoy.
But Benedict’s involvement in forest conservation doesn’t mean that she’s rejecting the land’s economic and recreation potential. The property’s plethora of hardwoods allows the family to participate in the timber market. As a large and secluded mountaintop property, it has attracted wind farms seeking to turn wind into energy. Its location along the Marcellus Shale makes it a desirable location for natural gas developers. This multitude of interested parties, each with its own vision, can be overwhelming for any property owner.
Since different stakeholders preach different benefits and drawbacks of extracting these natural resources, Benedict took charge and carefully investigated the issues herself, knowing her family’s land was at stake. Her decisions balance the property’s economic potential with her desire to keep her family forest as pristine as it was when she explored it as a child.
We talk so much about the environmental benefits of trees that it’s easy to forget that they’re also a business.
(Image courtesy Susan Benedict)
“My forester assures me that your woods are like your stock portfolio,” Benedict explains. “You don’t want to cut out more annual growth than what you’re generating, and in fact, you want to shoot for (cutting) less than what you’re generating. Right now, we are good; what we are taking out, we are generating.”
Before any logging is done, a county forester walks the property and designates which trees can be removed. Then it’s time to cut. Benedict has one logger, an ex-Vietnam veteran whose wife occasionally accompanies him. “He cuts whatever the mills are wanting,” says Benedict.
The challenge occurs when mills want something that shouldn’t be cut. “It’s a little more problematic because we have to market what we want to get rid of, instead of the lumber mills telling us what they want,” Benedict explains.
But Benedict won’t let natural resource markets sway her forest management decisions. She’s taking charge by telling lumber mills that she’ll give them what she wants to give them – no more, no less. Of course, the economic incentives of sustainable forest management make saying “no” easier.
One of these economic rewards is the Department of Agriculture’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQUIP), which provides financial and technical assistance to landowners seeking to “promote agricultural production and environmental quality as compatible national goals.”
Benedict’s EQUIP project will enhance growth on mass-producing trees such as hickory, oak, cherry, hazelnut, beech nut and others that produce animal feed. “Basically, we want to get the trees to grow quicker, and re-generate better.”
Family health problems put Bendict's EQUIP project on hold. Since it needed to be completed by the end of summer, Benedict’s brothers and her three sons (age 15, 24 and 27) held mandatory family work days each weekend from the Fourth of July to the end of September.
“It’s a 200,000-acre property, which translates to a lot of work. But I think that’s good,” Benedict assures me, even though she also sweat through the word during the height of summer’s humidity. “When you have concentrated time like that, you actually talk to each other. If you meet for an hour meeting, no one ever gets around to saying what they want. You get down to what’s real.”
Using the forest as a mechanism to unite her family has been Benedict’s goal since she and her brothers inherited the property after her father’s death.
Benedict tells me that her three boys “have to help out, whether they want to or not.” Their involvement – even if it is forced sometimes – allows the family to connect to the property. Benedict hopes the hard work will inspire them to adopt sustainable forestry management practices when they inherit the land.
We’ve all experienced times when nature takes over and there’s nothing we can do about it – whether we’re a farmer that’s experienced a devastating drought or a commuter who’s had to pull over in a heavy rainstorm because we couldn’t see the road in front of us.
This happened to Benedict and her team six years ago, when a three-year gypsy moth infestation destroyed 80 percent of a red oak stand. The damage cost her more than one million dollars in timber profits on a 2,000-acre lot.
“Al (Benedict's logger) had worked so hard on the stand. And it’s not a fun place to work – rocky and snake-infested. We were all so proud of how it came out. And then three years worth of caterpillars, and it was destroyed.”
Biological sprays of fungi can sometimes prevent gypsy moth infestations. The caterpillars die after ingesting the fungi for a few days.
Benedict could have sprayed the fungi, but it may not have worked. It’s a big risk to take when you’re paying $25 per acre (that’s $50,000 in total). Not only do you need the money, but you must have three consecutive rain-free days in May, the only time of year you can spray.
So when the emerald ash borer – the invasive green insect that has destroyed between 50 and 100 million ash trees in the United States – made its first appearance in Pennsylvania, Benedict began cutting down her ash trees. “We got them to market before they got killed.”
By paying attention to both environmental and market pressures, Benedict’s forest is both sustainable and profitable.
Benedict’s property is isolated. For wind-power developers, that means fewer people will complain about the loud noise and shadows that make living near wind turbines burdensome. The land is also atop a mountain, which, of course, means it experiences high winds.
“It’s very hard to decide to have that much development on your property, but honestly, it will provide a nice retirement for my brothers and me,” Benedict says. “Everyone I talk to assures me that once the construction phase is over, it doesn’t hurt the trees, it doesn’t hurt the wildlife. The wildlife could care less, which has been my observation on most things that we do. After it gets back to normal, they don’t care and they adjust.”
Environmental surveys, which are required by law before construction, affirm Benedict’s insights. A group hired to do a migratory bird study constructed a high tower atop the mountain. “They stayed up there every evening and morning in March,” Benedict says with a shiver.
Another contractor is delineating wetlands on the property: identifying and marking wetland habitat and making sure construction does not affect these areas.
Benedict and her family even had the opportunity to learn what kinds of endangered and threatened animals live on their property. “They found seven timber rattlesnake dens, and had to relocate one of the turbines because it was too close to the den,” Benedict explains. The teams also surveyed Allegany wood rats and northern bulrushes, a critical upland wetland plant.
“I decided to [lease property to the wind farm] because the only way we are ever going to know if wind is a viable technology is if we get some turbines up, see what works, see what doesn’t work, and allow that process of invention to move. And we have to have someone to host it.”
And according to the surveys, Benedict’s property is the perfect host.
As Benedict drives her pickup around the property, she points out the site of her father's former saw mill, where she once worked, and shows me to the cabin that the family built after her grandfather died in 1976. Nearby, there's a section of forest that the family is converting to grouse habitat, which will support her brother's love of grouse hunting.
(Image courtesy Susan Benedict)
The uses of the property fluctuate as family members' interests change. Benedict affirms that managing the property sustainably will give her grandchildren the freedom to pursue their interests in the years to come.
"A lot of people go the route of having a conservation easement, but who knows what the best use of that property is going to be in 100 years. If my dad did that, we would have very little use of the property now, and certainly very little flexibility with these things, especially the wind and natural gas."
Benedict is a member of the Centre County Natural Gas Task Force. "You hear all sorts of things about natural gas development and water resources, and in order to make sure it wasn’t going to be horrible, I joined the task force," she explains.
Benedict also allows 15 or so individuals to hunt and fish on her property for a small annual fee. Control of the deer population in particular is essential for her timber operations.
But no matter what happens, Benedict insists, the forest will stay in the family.
"We made a pact that everyone will have to sell all of their belongings before we sold this," she says. "There's some things, you know, you got to make work out."
Benedict’s forest management practices and involvement in the sustainable forestry community has earned her recognition as a 2011 Forest Steward Champion by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.
The Maryland Department of Agriculture has received $650,760 from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service to implement progressive management practices for drainage systems on the Eastern Shore.
The funding, awarded through a Conservation Innovation Grant, will help the state meet its Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP) goals. The state will use the funding to use the most advanced technology available to protect the Bay and help reduce pollution while meeting modern drainage needs.
“There are 820 miles of public ditches on the Eastern Shore that were originally designed to manage agricultural drainage,” said Agriculture Secretary Buddy Hance. “Today, those ditches also support storm water drainage from urban town centers, state highways, and commercial and residential development. As a result, many of these ditches are very seriously stressed.”
Most of the Eastern Shore’s ditches were constructed in the 1960s and 1970s in Caroline, Worcester, Wicomico and Somerset counties. Collectively, they drain 220,000 acres of land.
Over the past ten years, MDA has worked with the University of Maryland to develop technologies and management recommendations that reduce pollution and improve drainage ditch function. Using the NRCS grant, Maryland will identify and target the most stressed ditch systems. It will them implement management practices to reduce runoff and improve water quality, including water control structures, phosphorous absorbing materials, weed wiper technology, and algal turf scrubber technology.
Visit the Maryland Department of Agriculture’s website to learn more about the funding and the project.
The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation will receive nearly $850,000 through a grant from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to help Chesapeake Bay watershed farmers convert manure to energy.
The grant will be used to help farmers in Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia convert excess manure to energy to generate income. The project will also improve the Bay’s health by reducing land application of manure. Efforts will be concentrated in four of the region’s “phosphorus hot spots” – areas with high concentrations of phosphorus in the soil.
The funding was provided through the 2011 Conservation Innovation Grants, a program that invests millions in innovative conservation technologies that address natural resources issues.
"The grants will help to spur creativity and problem solving to benefit conservation-minded farmers and ranchers," said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
Visit www.nrcs.usda.gov for more information about the recipients of the 2011 Conservation Innovation Grants.
More than 1,700 Maryland farmers will plant a record 550,000 acres of winter grains this fall through the state’s Cover Crop Program.
This acreage represents 155 percent of Maryland’s cover crop goal in its Phase 1 Watershed Implementation Plan, which spells out how the state will meet federal pollution reduction requirements. Cover crops are considered one of the most cost-effective ways to reduce pollution and help restore the Bay.
Maryland’s Cover Crop Program provides farmers with grants to plant cover crops on their fields immediately following the summer crop harvest.
Cover crops are grains such as wheat, rye and barley that are planted in the fall. Once established, cover crops recycle unused nutrients, helping to improve the soil for next year’s crop. Cover crops also control soil erosion and reduce the amount of nutrients that run off the land into nearby waterways.
Visit Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s website to learn more about the cover crop enrollment figures.
Eleven federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture, have joined together in a new initiative to revitalize the Anacostia and Patapsco rivers.
The Urban Waters Federal Partnership will focus on the two Chesapeake Bay region rivers, as well as five other waterways throughout the United States, as pilot locations for the new initiative. The partnership’s goal is to help underserved communities access and benefit from their local waterways.
Urban waterways like the Anacostia and Patapsco rivers provide local residents with drinking water and opportunities for fishing, boating and swimming. Cleaning up and restoring these rivers is essential to protecting human health, improving quality of life, and connecting people to their local natural areas.
For more information, visit www.urbanwaters.gov.
What do farms, manure, and a developing technology for creating fertilizer have to do with the Chesapeake Bay? Well, almost one-quarter of the Chesapeake Bay’s 64,000 square mile watershed is agricultural land. Runoff from farmland inevitably drains into the local streams, creeks and rivers that flow to the Chesapeake Bay.
When best management practices are not implemented on agricultural lands, runoff can carry animal waste and excess fertilizer into these waterways, overloading them with nutrients, bacteria and pathogens.
A developing technology called anaerobic digestion has been proposed to reduce phosphorus runoff from many farms. Pilot studies have been conducted in several locations around the world, including at least three Chesapeake Bay watershed states.
Anaerobic digesters, or biodigesters, have become an increasingly popular tool for managing manure on farms. Biodigesters are thought to have several benefits, including reducing farm animal waste runoff, producing nitrogen-rich liquid that can be used as fertilizer, and producing phosphorus-rich solids that can be processed into mulch and other products that would reduce runoff.
Biodigesters are increasing in popularity for use with dairy farms and manure handled as a liquid, slurry or semisolid. However, a Bay Program website visitor wanted to know about the effectiveness of using biodigesters on poultry farms with litter feedstock to improve water quality in the Bay and its tributaries.
One study conducted in the Bay watershed for the Propane Education Research Council tried to determine if this method could decrease the phosphorus in the liquid effluent from the digester exit point. Unfortunately, the study concluded that this was not the case. Phosphorus was only decreased by approximately 5 percent – the same rate of reduction without the anaerobic digestion process. The council concluded that significant phosphorus reduction could be possible if a separate post-digester step was added.
According to that study, the use of biodigesters would not be an effective way for farmers to help improve water quality.
John Ignosh is a scientist with the Virginia Cooperative Extension at Virginia Tech, working on agricultural byproduct utilization. “As far as digesters [used for] litter,” he said, “there have been a few pilot projects looking at this. The main challenge is that digestion is better suited for slurry type feedstocks.”
Most discussion of anaerobic digesters is in reference to digesters using a slurry type feedstock, but Ignosh said there have been pilot projects with litter feed conducted in Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia, among other locations.
An important note is that regardless of the type of feedstock used for the biodigesters, there is not a significant reduction in nutrients from the waste. Nitrogen enters the digester as ammonium and organic nitrogen, and the ammonium is not destroyed in the digester. Instead, the organic nitrogen is converted to ammonium. So the nitrogen in the effluent from the digester typically ends up being higher than when it went in. Similarly, the microorganisms used in the digester do not consume phosphorus. Although some of the phosphorus can be converted to a soluble form, the total mass of phosphorus remains constant.
Therefore, while anaerobic digesters may be useful for producing biogas to create energy and manage waste, they do not reduce the amount of nutrients in the fertilizer or other products it might result in. So fertilizer that is made from a biodigester and is used on farmland would not decrease the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus that would run off the land. These devices also tend to be prohibitively expensive for many farms and do not provide the best benefit for the investment.
For more information, visit the following websites:
The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service has released a study showing that effective use of conservation practices on farmland throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed is reducing nutrient and sediment pollution to the Bay and its rivers.
The study, “Assessment of Conservation Practices on Cultivated Cropland in the Chesapeake Bay Region,” quantifies the environmental gains of using conservation practices and identifies opportunities for farmers to reduce even more pollution.
Agricultural conservation practices such as cover crops, conservation tillage and forest buffers help reduce and absorb excess nutrients and sediment before they can run off farmland or soak into groundwater.
According to the study, agricultural conservation practices have reduced edge-of-field sediment losses by 55 percent, surface nitrogen runoff by 42 percent, nitrogen in sub-surface flow by 31 percent and phosphorus by 40 percent.
“This study confirms that farmers are reducing sediment and nutrient losses from their fields,” said Dave White, chief of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. “Our voluntary, incentives-based conservation approach is delivering significant and proven results.”
The study shows that using additional conservation practices on farmland prone to runoff and leaching could reduce even more nutrient and sediment pollution. Targeting conservation practices in these high-need areas can reduce per-acre nutrient and sediment losses by more than twice that of treating acres with low or moderate conservation needs.
Scientists and officials will use the study results to better focus on priority conservation needs and achieve greater pollution reduction results throughout the Bay watershed.
For more information about the study, visit the USDA's website.
The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Maryland and Bay Bank, the Chesapeake Bay’s conservation marketplace, are working together to help agricultural operators and forest landowners implement conservation practices that will make them eligible to receive private funding to protect and enhance important habitats, forestland and clean water.
The partnership provides financial assistance for conservation practices that improve habitat conditions for critical species such as brook trout, bog turtles, Delmarva fox squirrels and Atlantic white cedar. Practices that benefit other habitats and water quality, including wetlands and forest buffers, are also eligible.
Bay Bank is a collaborative effort to increase the pace and scope of conservation across the Chesapeake region. Bay Bank integrates existing programs and policies and uses innovative, market-based solutions to support “ecosystem services” that people depend on. As participants implement their conservation practices, groups such as wastewater treatment plants and private foundations may purchase credits from their practices to meet their permits or organizational goals.
NRCS will provide assistance through its Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Bay Bank will provide program participants with tools and support to help them engage in ecosystem markets.
To learn more about the program, contact NRCS at your local USDA service center or your local soil conservation district. Additional information can be found online at thebaybank.org. Applications are due May 1.
Maryland farmers planted a record 398,679 acres of cover crops on their farms last fall, exceeding the state’s cover crop goal by 20 percent, according to the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
Cover crops are considered one of the best and most cost-effective agricultural conservation practices, also known as best management practices (BMPs). Cover crops help protect the Chesapeake Bay and local waterways by controlling soil erosion and reducing nutrient pollution runoff.
Collectively, the 398,679 acres of cover crops will prevent an estimated 2.4 million pounds of nitrogen and 80,000 pounds of phosphorus from potentially polluting the Bay and its rivers.
“Maryland is committed to achieving our Bay restoration goals by 2020, five years ahead of any other state in the watershed,” said Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. “The fact that farmers exceeded their goal and helped us get 60 percent of the way toward our overall two-year goal across all sectors shows that we can reach our early target.”
Farmers plant cover crops in the fall after harvesting their summer crops. Rye, wheat, barley and other cereal grains are planted as cover crops because they grow in cool weather.
Visit the Maryland Department of Agriculture’s website to learn more about cover crops.
A record 1,668 Maryland farmers will plant more than 500,000 acres of winter grains on their fields this year through the state’s cover crop program, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. This is 155 percent of Maryland’s two-year milestone for cover crops.
Cover crops are a key component of restoring the health of the Chesapeake Bay by reducing polluted runoff from farm fields. Farmers can plant grains such as wheat, rye and barley in the fall to absorb unused nutrients and control soil erosion.
“Maryland’s cover crop program has the potential to do more for the Bay than ever before,” said Maryland Agriculture Secretary Buddy Hance. “Maryland farmers are on track to exceed the two-year milestone for cover crops with record number of approved acres.”
In addition, the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA) has received a $600,000 grant to implement a cover crop management tool, which will provide data for the Chesapeake Bay model. The tool will use remote sensing to see how efficiently fields planted with cover crops are absorbing nutrients. Farmers will receive reports about their fields from this tool so they can better manage cover crops in the future.
MDA has also launched a pilot program called Conservation Tracker, which will provide accurate accounting of best management practices (BMPs) on Maryland farms. Conservation Tracker will geo-reference farms that use BMPs and calculate their nutrient reduction credits.
The program, now being piloted in Talbot County, will ultimately help MDA target resources to areas that will achieve the greatest benefits to local waterways and the Bay, as well as help the state track and report on progress toward its pollution-reduction milestones through BayStat.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will expand outreach and innovative conservation practices on farmland in three small watersheds in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia to show how focusing funding, sound science and strong partnerships in small geographic areas can help improve the health of local waterways and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay.
The three small watersheds, called “showcase watersheds,” are:
USDA’s goal is to reach out to all of the farmers in each watershed to learn about the types of voluntary conservation practices they are currently using and to let them know about opportunities for financial and technical assistance.
Each watershed has its own restoration goals and will receive additional funding and staff to help increase the use of agricultural conservation practices on local farms. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is also contributing funding, and the U.S. Geological Survey will conduct local water monitoring. Local watershed groups and nonprofits are also involved in the efforts.
The showcase watersheds concept is part of the USDA’s plan to implement new conservation practices on four million acres of farmland in the Bay watershed by 2025, a commitment included in the federal government’s recently released Strategy for Restoration and Protection of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.
“The showcase watersheds strengthen USDA’s commitment to funding priority conservation practices in places that will do the most good for water quality in the Bay and its tributaries,” said USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan at an event to announce the showcase watersheds.
The USDA’s Bay watershed work is funded in large part by the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative, which was established in the 2008 Farm Bill and provides $188 million from 2009-2012.
Visit the USDA’s website for more information about the showcase watersheds and other Chesapeake Bay activities.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has released $23 million for the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative, a program of the 2008 Farm Bill that provides the region’s farmers with assistance to implement vital agricultural conservation practices to help clean up the Bay.
The funding will support nutrient management, cover crops, crop residue management, vegetative buffers and other agricultural conservation practices that help reduce pollution flowing into the streams, creeks and rivers that feed the Bay.
Eligible private farmland owners will receive technical and financial assistance to address wetland, wildlife habitat, soil, water and related concerns. The funding will also provide land owners with assistance to plan, design, implement and evaluate habitat conservation and restoration.
“The Chesapeake Bay Watershed initiative is an important source of technical and financial assistance to agricultural producers who want to go the extra mile to improve and protect the Bay,” said Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer.
Farmland covers almost one-quarter of the Chesapeake watershed and is the largest single source of nutrient and sediment pollution to the Bay, contributing an estimated 42 percent of nitrogen, 46 percent of phosphorus and 72 percent of sediment annually.
The $23 million is the first part of a total of $188 million that the region will receive through the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative over the next four years. This is one of the largest single federal investments in the Bay clean-up effort and an unprecedented targeting of Farm Bill resources to a specific watershed. Congress has authorized future funding levels of $43 million in 2010, $72 million in 2011 and $50 million in 2012.
USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) will administer the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative. Many Chesapeake Bay Program partners, including the six Bay states and the Chesapeake Bay Commission, provided key input and information that supported the initiative’s authorization in the 2008 Farm Bill.
A new farmer-to-farmer mentoring program will help improve the economic productivity of Maryland farms and bring healthy, grass-fed livestock to local restaurants and residents – all while reducing pollution to the Bay.
The Maryland Grazers Network will help innovative farmers spread among their peers a Bay-friendly agricultural practice called rotational grazing, which involves moving livestock to different pastures once grass is grazed below a certain height. Livestock are then returned to the original pasture once grass grows tall enough to be grazed again. This process allows grass to rejuvenate and animal manure to fertilize the pasture.
The Network relies on a four-pronged approach that links:
This four-pronged approach helps improve the farmer's bottom line while reducing polluted runoff into local waterways and the Bay.
The Network was launched with eight mentoring farmers and is now soliciting new farms to join. Participating farmers receive:
The Maryland Grazers Network was established by a contribution from the Chesapeake Bay Funders Network, a funding collaborative that fosters opportunities for funders to pool resources and work together on Bay watershed restoration issues. Partners in the Maryland Grazers Network include:
To learn more about the Maryland Grazers Network, contact Michael Heller at Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Clagett Farm.
Agricultural practices account for roughly one-quarter of the land use in the Bay watershed. Of that land, approximately 17 percent is devoted to crop production, which contributes significant amounts of nutrients and sediment to the Bay and its tributaries. But an increasing number of farmers in the Bay watershed are turning to a new, more Bay-friendly method of crop production called “no-till” farming.
Traditionally, cropland is fertilized and plowed in the spring to turn over the soil and prepare a good seedbed for planting. However, strong, frequent spring rains cause stormwater to rush across bare crop fields, which do not yet have plants to stabilize the soil and absorb the fertilizer. Excess nutrients and sediment from fertilizers and freshly plowed fields run off into surrounding waterways, eventually winding up in the Bay.
No-till farming, also known as conservation tillage or zero-tillage, leaves the soil undisturbed from the fall harvest to spring planting. Seeds are planted in very narrow slots that are “drilled” into the ground using disk openers, or coulters.
There are many benefits of no-till farming compared with traditional methods, including:
No-till farming is considered such a critical part of Bay restoration that several no-till programs have recently received Chesapeake Bay Targeted Watershed Grants, funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. These grants help organizations implement innovative programs to reduce the amount of nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment that flow into the Bay.
In 2006, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection - in partnership with Penn State Cooperative Extension, USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Capital Area RC&D Council, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Pennsylvania Environmental Council - received a grant to oversee the conversion of 12,750 acres of cropland to continuous no-till agriculture. This conversion will reduce the annual nitrogen load to the Susquehanna River by over 99,000 pounds, and the annual phosphorous load by over 17,000 pounds.
Farmers and landowners interested in no-till farming can contact their local USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office for more information.