(Posted by Fred Tutman.)
I am deeply upset about what appears to be an unavoidable collision course brewing between Chesapeake Bay advocates and a relatively small segment of the agricultural community that has a big footprint in Maryland and in the Chesapeake Bay. It is a confrontation that is causing huge rifts between champions for water quality and advocates for the future of “true” agriculture in the state. It is a fight that is fast making enemies of those who really should be allies.
I was raised on a Maryland farm. And living off land is deeply embedded in my psyche. Some of my formative memories of growing up include planting and harvesting tobacco and other crops, or playing hide and seek in the rows of wheat and corn, heaving dust cloud grenades at my playmates fighting mock battles on sandy dry soil. My early years often found me riding down country lanes on the buckboard of a farm cart with the warm sun on face. I remember the briny smell from a string of fresh-caught yellow perch riding next to me.
On the way to and from the hot fields in August we would stop by natural springs and drink sweet water from the ground using a weathered soda bottle that hung from a string on the side of that same wagon. Water sweet and cold straight from the ground! I can still taste it in my imagination.
I can strip and overhaul the carburetor of a Farmall tractor, prime a water pump to irrigate the fields and perform a thousand other tasks that have no parallel in any other line of work. Just the other day I was leafing through a family album of grainy photos that portray the rich heritage of my African-American family completely tied to the sense of place and the routine tasks of self sufficiency and close stewardship with nature on an American farm.. Through droughts, hurricanes, frigid winters and other hazards, we hung on and our partnership with the land was our center.
So for years it has been with a flush of white-hot anger that I hear Chesapeake Bay policy wonks and planners with absolutely no context for what it means to work with their hands to bring a crop to market talk with great authority about how farms are ruining the Bay and opine that farmlands should be in the hands of the public or of preservationists (for safekeeping).
Crazy talk. I draw the line between family farms where the stewards of land are committed to the values and ideals of farming instead of being cogs in the vast machine of industrial agriculture. They are not the same interests. Not by a longshot. Besides, regulating genuine farming interests while giving a free pass to the urbanization interests in our watersheds is absurd. Urban runoff is an even bigger problem in my watershed but of course everybody needs to do their share and not everyone has exactly same share of the problem.
Where I work on 110 miles of the Patuxent River we do not have manure farms like they have on the Delmarva Peninsula, but I can tell you that we are losing farmland at historic rates. Blacktop is the last crop these formerly lush lands will ever see. Sure, we save the odd farmstead here and there, but we are quickly fragmenting the landscape that used to nurture independent family-run farms. I know firsthand how difficult it is to thrive in a farm lifestyle without the comforting web of artisans, the embrace of a surrounding sustaining community and without the countless specialized crafts that are needed in order to maintain a really viable local farming economy. Morally I feel we need to be fighting to save farms instead of fighting farmers. But not everybody driving that one-ton pick-up truck these days is really a farmer anymore.
Strong independent farms are as integral to my environmental values as…clean water. To allow agri-business or corporate-oriented farm associations to draw artificial battle lines between farmers and water-quality advocates implies that whoever wins in court will leave a deeper rift that will be hard to heal. But our true adversary is the toxic business model or contract-farming practices that are equally toxic to the Chesapeake Bay.
Frankly, I can see no correlation at all between the agribusiness, factory farm model that has begun to replace and dominate farming all over America. Those are not really “farms” at all in my book. Industrial farms are using the few remaining true family farms as a shield to break down the fabric of the farming heritage that made our country so productive and so prosperous. Some of us have confused genuine farming interests with the deeply corrupted, cold-blooded business enterprises that are strangling one of America’s greatest assets: its farms!
These conglomerates make billions while the hardworking family enterprise can barely make a go of it through honest hard work, even with multiple part-time jobs. It They make a mockery of the basic values of an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. These monopolistic interests have beguiled many–by clouding the worthwhile dialogue about where our food comes from and how our land links to the nearby waters, and how healthy regional economies work. Instead they talk of subsidies, global economies, compliance secrecy all while steadily building a legacy of Bay waters filled with animal waste and social bile.
As a Riverkeeper I have concluded that there is really no way to barter, or have any sort of reasonable dialogue with parties who do not act in good faith. No sense trying to educate or reason with those unmotivated by either knowledge or reason. Those who do not seek to solve problems—but rather to deflect blame. Who do not propose practical economic solutions, only seeking to pass the buck to others.
And while our adversaries in this bitter fight claim they want less government and not more, they have demonstrated through years of abuse of both the land and the water that vigorous government regulation is the only way they will ever accept responsibility for what happens to the waste products created by their profit making apparatus. I suspect such players will never comply with the environmental laws unless a judge orders it. So be it. Long live the original stewards of land, America’s true farmers. Let’s restore the true vision of farming through any means necessary and the clean waters will naturally follow.