Virginia growers not getting proper credit for Bay cleanup

Virginia growers not getting proper credit for Bay cleanup

Virginia ag leaders say the acreage for no-till farming in the state are woefully under-estimated by the EPA and farmers are not getting enough credit for their efforts to cleanup the Chesapeake Bay.

Cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay is a universally accepted good thing. How it’s being done is not so well accepted, especially by Virginia farmers and a recent study by Virginia Tech researchers indicates the farmers might well be getting the proverbial short end of the stick.

The Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, one voice for state farmers, has publicly opposed legislation they feel puts too much burden on farmers. In particular, the group contends the recent Chesapeake Bay Clean Water and Ecosystem Restoration Act doesn’t give farmers enough credit for conservation efforts over the past 20-plus years that has significantly contributed to reducing pollution in the Bay.

"Virginia farmers are committed to bay restoration efforts. We've been doing our part for decades,'' said Wayne Pryor, the group's president. "Now we feel we are being unfairly blamed for the majority of the Chesapeake Bay pollution."

According to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and the Virginia office of the National Agricultural Statistics Service, state farmers used 269,000 fewer tons of fertilizer in the years since the Bay cleanup efforts started in 1987.

Among the concerns of agriculture — and not just in the Chesapeake Watershed — are the following points of the Chesapeake Clean Water and Ecosystem Restoration Act of 2009 which would:

1) codify the Bay-wide pollution budget or “Total Maximum Daily Load” (TMDL) for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment that EPA is in the process of developing for the Bay. By Dec. 31, 2010, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment pollution caps for all sources of pollution will be allocated to states and tributary watersheds.

2) Give the federal government authority to compel the states to reduce nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment loads to meet the TMDL allocations, not by expanding the scope of direct federal regulation, but by adopting the Clean Air Act approach, i.e., setting a federal standard and giving the states flexibility in meeting it.                       

3) Require states to submit “watershed implementation plans” to the EPA Administrator by May 2011, explaining how they will achieve their pollution loads from all sources by May 2025. The plan must be designed to achieve at least 60 percent of the needed pollution reductions by May 2017.

While it’s easy to point an accusatory finger at farmers, the reality is that farmers have much more to lose by polluting the Chesapeake Bay, or any stream or estuary, than the non-farming public. Farmers suffer the same environmental fate as any other citizen, but in addition they are paying for the excess chemicals that go for any other purpose than to provide nutrients for a target crop.

One of the big complaints of farmers has to do with the Environmental Protection Agency’s establishment of a pollution diet for the Chesapeake Bay. Technically, the diet is called a total maximum daily load. They are using a computer simulation model to set limits for N, P and K sediment throughout the 64,000 square mile watershed.

Effects on farmers, if these TMDL levels are enforced, goes well beyond Virginia, Maryland and the other states that impact the Chesapeake Bay. This is land-mark legislation that could well affect farmers throughout the country.

The model being used by the EPA considers the total acreage under conservation practices, such as no-till farm land. Rightfully, no-till land is considered to place less N,P and K into streams that feed into the Chesapeake Bay. The problem is that, according to farmers, consultants and other agricultural leaders in Virginia, the number of acres considered to be under conservation-tillage practices is off — way off.

The model uses Virginia’s Department of Conservation and Recreation’s (DCR) data to allocate nutrient losses from agricultural fields. Figures used for the model allocate 15 percent of Virginia’s crop acres as being in a DCR no-till program.

Road survey

A road survey, conducted by Stephen Davis at the Middlesex County, Virginia Extension Office, has revealed that approximately 90 percent of fields in eastern Virginia are being no-tilled.  Furthermore, over 37 percent of the acreage contained a winter cover or small grain crop.

Veteran Virginia Crop Consultant Wendell Cooper says the amount of no-till acreage he works in Southeastern Virginia is even higher than 90 percent. The only exceptions are peanuts, which are on the decline in acreage in Virginia and vegetable crops, which make up a small percentage of farmland in the state, he says.

Virginia Tech Soybean Specialist David Holshouser says virtually all the soybeans he sees growing in the state are under some type of conservation-tillage system, primarily no-till. His observations concur with the Middlesex County Extension study that over 90 percent of the cropland in Virginia is in a conservation-tillage system.

In conducting his study, Stephen Davis traveled over 350 miles and checked 774 fields in 13 counties. His travels took Davis through the heart of the Chesapeake Bay watershed in Virginia, an area representing 178,000 acres of corn, soybean, wheat, and barley.

“When I first began in Gloucester, I was stopping every half mile and recording data on both the left and right side of the road.  Then, beginning in Middlesex County, I began stopping at all crop and permanent grass fields that I passed on the left and right side of the road,” Davis explains.

“The purpose of the survey was to get a better idea of fields that were in no-till production and compare findings to the DCR numbers for the same practice,” he adds.

Survey results revealed that only 4 percent of the fields were tilled. No tillage was practiced on 90 percent of the fields and another 6 percent were in permanent grass. A cover crop was planted on 15 percent of the fields. Corn was growing on 44 percent and soybeans were growing on 27 percent of the fields.  

Wheat or barley was being grown on another 22.5 percent of the fields at the time of the survey. Much of this acreage likely was planted to double-crop soybeans and some percentage of it would have a winter cover crop planted on it.

Makes economic sense

Holshouser says in addition to contributing to the Chesapeake Bay cleanup, no-till farming highlights the efforts of all famers to be good stewards of the land and just makes good economic sense.

“The cost savings from no-till alone are justification enough for implementing that practice. In addition, growers are finding that no tillage and high-residue cover crops are improving soil quality and making the farm more productive in the long run,” Holshouser says.

Prior to Federal involvement in the Chesapeake Bay, Virginia regulatory authorities monitored the clean up efforts. Over a period of years various state farming organizations built a positive working relationship with state officials. Now that the Federal government is setting the guidelines, most farmers feel they are not getting fair credit for the money they’ve spent to contribute to cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.

Whether or not the EPA alters its current model on the amount of farm sediment agriculture contributes to those levels in the Chesapeake Bay will have a direct impact on whether some farmers stay in business or not.

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