Healthy Soil, Healthy Farms, Healthy Bay
By Dena Leibman
Fly low over the Chesapeake Bay’s tributaries, and you’ll see the starkly different personalities of the region’s agriculture. The bay’s eastern flank is mostly a vast, flat carpet of soy and corn — feed for the millions of chickens produced in the area’s large-scale poultry houses. Cross the bay to its western shore and the farms — many still growing feed, but also vegetables and grass-based livestock — become smaller in converse relationship to city-inflated land prices.
Within the cities themselves, an urban farming revolution has squeezed mini-farms between housing developments and onto vacant lots and even rooftops. Each of these types of agriculture comes with its own deeply rooted conventional wisdom, often at odds with the others’. Imagine, then, last winter’s truly watershed moment when stakeholders — from the Farm Bureau to the Maryland Department of Agriculture to bay watchdog groups to the Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture — joined together to pass the Maryland Healthy Soils Act. All were in rare agreement: Healthy soil is win-win — good for farms and the bay.
Soil is a living ecosystem, teeming with billions of microbes interacting in ways that provide nutrients and structure for growing plants. When well-nurtured, it absorbs and retains rainfall, snowmelt, and irrigation water. Enter modern agriculture. We’ve deep-tilled our land into hardpan; sprayed chemicals to the point of diminishing returns (read: resistant superweeds and pests); over-applied nutrients — both synthetic and organic; and removed natural field edge buffers that filter runoff. We’ve corralled our livestock into confined spaces where manure piles up and too often finds its way into bay tributaries. Today, agriculture is responsible for 40 percent of nutrient pollution and the majority of sediment pollution to the bay.
The blossoming soil health movementnt and the multi-stakeholder interest behind it show promise in turning farmers from perceived villains of water quality efforts to full-on heroes. For example, organic and conventional farmers in record numbers are using cover crops— non-commercial crops grown between plantings of commercial ones. Cover crops are the workhorse of sustainable agriculture, reducing tillage, suppressing weeds, providing natural nitrogen and other nutrients, and most importantly for bay health efforts, keeping water in the ground and filtering polluted field runoff.
In 2015–16, more than 500,000 Maryland acres were planted in cover crops thanks to the state’s cost-share program. Other practices are key to soil health: managed grazing distributes manure, keeps land covered in grass, and provides a conducive habitat for microbes. Reduced tillage and chemical use keeps microbes healthy and happy. Planting deeply rooted perennials draws carbon via photosynthesis into the ground to help build soil organic matter. Every 1 percent increase in soil organic matter can absorb an additional 20,000 gallons of water per acre, according to the U.S De- partment of Agriculture. What’s more, these practices also draw down atmospheric carbon and can offset greenhouse gas emissions.
Progress is coming, but we have far to go for soil health to be an effective tool for meeting Total Maximum Daily Load requirements. First up is solving the thorny issue of how to suppress weeds without microbe-killing chemicals or tillage; most farmers must now “pick their poison” from the two. We must learn best practices per soil type and ever-changing weather patterns, collect more data, and work to ensure farmers remain profitable — for when a farm is sold to development we lose our best chance of stewarding that land for water quality.
Which brings us back to the Maryland Healthy Soils Act. Its passage was, indeed, a Kumbaya moment, but it comes to Marylanders toothless; our work together has just begun. For instance, the act asks the state agriculture department to set up a program for demonstration projects and farmer education but provides no funding. California and Oklahoma, also among the eight states that have passed healthy soils bills, are truly investing in soil health programs, including demonstration projects, research, technical assistance, and farmer education.
We must pass similar bills in every bay watershed state, and they must come with funding for farmer education and training and cost- shares for soil health practices, as well as a commitment to research and helping farmers find ways to get a return on their investment in their soil.
With the passage of the Maryland bill and growing awareness of the link between soil and bay health, the wind is at our backs. The time is now to turn the Chesapeake region into a national example of how it’s possible for farmers an environment to thrive together.
This article is part of "The Debate in Print" an article forthcoming in March, 2018 from the Environmental Law Institute (www.eli.org).
Chesapeake Bay Getting Healthier But New Gains Face Funding Cuts, Policy Challenges:
The Environmental Protection Agency’s Chesapeake Bay Program announced in December that almost 40 percent of the bay meets standards for oxygen, water clarity, and algae growth. Progress toward restoration is impressive, but getting the remaining 60 percent of the waters into alignment will be dif cult.
In 2010, after years of halting restoration efforts, EPA established enforceable pollution limits for the Chesapeake — known as the Total Maximum Daily Load — covering nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment pollution. The six bay states — Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia — and the District of Columbia later released their plans to meet those limits by 2025. This ambitious Clean Water Blueprint survived a legal challenge, and in recent years federal, state, and local governments have pressed ahead with their plans to achieve pollution reductions.
As we reach the midway point for the 2025 deadline, it is clear that progress is being made across the watershed. Water quality and clarity have improved, the acreage of underwater bay grasses has increased, crab harvests are rebounding, and efforts to restore oyster populations are accelerating. Just as important, an outdoor recreational economy (exclusive of recreational fishing) is valued at as much as a quarter billion dollars per year and is growing.
But despite recent progress, most notably in reducing pollution from wastewater treatment plants, significant challenges remain across the watershed in meeting nonpoint source pollution reductions from agriculture and urban and suburban runoff whose controls are more dif cult.
This Debate in Print occurs as there is a standoff in Washington about future funding for bay restoration, a minor item in the struggle to pass a measure funding the government. The Trump administration has proposed dramatic funding cuts for the Chesapeake Bay Program and other federal initiatives that support restoration efforts. The House is considering less severe cuts, but so far the Senate recommends full funding. Without adequate federal funding, the initiative to save the bay is in jeopardy.
Recognizing the significant progress that has been made and the important challenges that remain, the Forum asks our panel for their views on what must happen in the years ahead if the goal of restoring the Chesapeake is to succeed.
Dena Leibman is executive director of Future Harvest, Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture. FHCASA is a farmer-based nonpro t that provides education and advocacy to advance agriculture that is profitable and good for land, water, and communities. She is also co-owner of ZigBone Farm Retreat in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains.