Protect farms to protect the bay

Published 9:19 pm Tuesday, April 26, 2016

By Robert Whitescarver

Now that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency setting of total maximum daily loads — a “pollution diet” for jurisdictions in the Chesapeake Bay watershed — is settled law under the federal Clean Water Act, we can finally focus on what will make the most difference to the health of the bay: improving soil health on farmland and cleaning up our streams.

A well-managed farmland is the most important land use and our greatest hope for a restored bay.

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The first order of business is to keep farmers on the farm. The second is to help them apply soil and water conservation measures so soil and nutrients stay on their land, out of their local streams and out of the bay.

Not counting forested land, farmland has, by far, the largest footprint in the bay’s 64,000-square-mile watershed — and it is the most economical and practical land to treat for clean water.

There are many other sources of bay pollution, and there are ongoing fixes, but farmland has the most potential to do the most good.
 The following scenario is typical of what happens somewhere, every day, in this sprawling watershed: A 200-acre farm is rezoned from agriculture to high-density residential. Developers bulldoze the green pastures and put up 400 houses, and 1,000 people move in.

This requires a new elementary school and a sewage treatment plant upgrade that together cost local taxpayers more than $30 million. It also takes away another piece of what makes the community so beautiful: farmland.

I wish we would instead give the farmer a million dollars to not develop. We could save $29 million in public funds every time it happens.
 Protecting farmland from development is the best way to avoid the cost of future development. The more farmland within the watershed, the easier it will be to put locally grown, healthy food on the table and restore the bay. Farmland not only produces food, fiber, feed and fuel, it can also produce clean water, if done right.

When it rains on farmland where good soil and water conservation measures are in place, the rain soaks into the soil, percolates through it and emerges as clean water in our streams. Soil regulates the water cycle.

Not so with concrete, pavement and rooftops from urban areas. The resulting runoff from these areas is the most expensive and difficult to water to treat. 
Our greatest hope, and the best value for our money, is to help farmers stay on farms and continue their work to improve soil health. Agriculture is halfway to reducing its share of nutrients fouling local streams and eventually reaching the bay. That’s why the Virginia General Assembly recently passed a budget with an estimated $30 million for land conservation and $61.7 million for agricultural best management practices.

Land conservation involves a mixture of incentives and disincentives to keep farms in place and operational, instead of selling the land for non-farm uses. Outright purchase of development rights is one way to do it, and there are various federal, state and local tax incentives to help farms stay in agricultural production.

Beyond that, we need to greatly expand financial aid and incentives for agricultural practices that minimize runoff and pollution. These include rotational grazing, using cover crops to cover the soil during the winter, planting on the contour, rotating crops, keeping livestock out of streams and carefully managing nutrients.

The cost of government support of these practices pales in comparison to the expense of upgrading a wastewater treatment plant or reducing urban and suburban polluted runoff.

Overgrazed pastures, eroding cropland, manure-laden feedlots with streams flowing past or through them, livestock lounging in streams, and too many nutrients applied to fields are the main causes of agricultural pollution. There are well-known fixes for these poor practices and funds to help get the job done.

The Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint is our path forward. Let’s work together to show the world we really can restore the Chesapeake Bay.

Robert Whitescarver is a farmer, certified nutrient management planner and a retired district conservationist for the USDA. Visit his website at