(Posted by Bob Parks)
Many on the Western Shore of Maryland assume that the Eastern Shore is all chicken houses, but of course that’s not the case. The Upper Eastern Shore is, in fact, primarily grain farming. The Clean Water Act, however, does not regulate grain farming. Simply put, grain farming is the ultimate nonpoint source of nitrogen and phosphorus. You cannot identify (or regulate) the farmer whose field is sending nitrogen into the ground water that ends up in the rivers and the Bay.
The Chester River (Md.) Association (CRA), where I serve as executive director, is a member of the Waterkeeper Alliance and has an active Riverkeeper program, so we are not afraid to go after polluters via the courts, legislation or public opinion. Since there are no laws to enforce with grain farmers and the Maryland legislature is unlikely to pass tough legislation, we believe the best way to get our grain farmers to implement conservation practices is through economics.
CRA hired two conservation planners whose job it is to implement this policy. Our first step has been to encourage cover crop signup. Now, more than half of the eligible acres in our watershed are signed up for cover crops. We have implemented a precision agriculture program with a product called GreenSeeker that cuts the amount of fertilizer applied to crops by 20 percent. Currently two “real” farmers who farm over 4,000 acres in the Middle Chester Watershed have the product which was paid for by a grant. This spring two more farmers who farm over 5,000 acres will get two GreenSeekers funded by a National Resources Conservation Services grant. If this product gains acceptance and is widely used by our farmers it will save them money and have a significant impact on reducing nitrogen going into the ground water of our watershed.
The second project is switchgrass. Native to Maryland with deep roots that absorb nutrients, switchgrass is an excellent environmental product when planted in the buffers of streams and rivers and is a huge source of energy as a biomass product. If we are able to develop an energy market for the product it can become a cash crop for farmers and have unlimited potential. Currently with the help of three grants we have 500 acres planted or committed by this spring. Switchgrass is currently planted in buffers, wet areas and other low yield areas. However, it could become more prevalent depending on rising energy costs in the future.
At CRA our motto is “healthy farms mean a healthy Chester River.” We want to keep our farmers in farming and keep them from selling their valuable land to developers. We believe that economics is the best way to promote our environmental agenda.