It's a hot afternoon in Tuscarora, Maryland, and dairy farmer Chuck Fry is feeding 170 of his Holstein and Jersey cows in an open barn longer than a football field, as huge fans whirl to cool the animals off. He then leads a visitor to a pair of tanks holding milk's byproduct.
"For every gallon of milk I get I am benefited by three gallons of manure," said Fry, President of the Maryland Farm Bureau. "Now, that’s a curse and a blessing. We use that three gallons of manure to grow next year’s crops. So we store it and treasure it because it has tremendous value."
But manure also has a tremendous impact on the Chesapeake Bay, with farm runoff the single largest source of pollution in the estuary. And so Maryland, four years ago, imposed regulations to require farmers to mix and incorporate manure into the soil of their fields to reduce runoff, and prohibit spreading in the winter when the ground is frozen and crops can’t absorb it.
The pollution control rules were to take effect July 1. But because Fry and his allies complained to Governor Hogan’s administration about the cost to the state’s 430 dairy farmers, the administration has proposed to weaken the regulations. "Those regulations would have driven those dairy farmers out of business," Fry argued, explaining the rules require the construction of manure storage tanks that can cost tens of thousands of dollars.
The operators of municipal sewage treatment plants, whose treated waste is also spread by farmers on crops as fertilizer, also requested more flexibility in the regulations.
Environmentalists are protesting the watering down of the clean water rules. “These changes – the proposed amendments – will result in more manure ending up in our rivers, which are already saturated from pollution from agriculture – nitrogen and phosphorus,” said Jeff Horstman, the Mid-Shore Riverkeeper.
It wasn't the first time that farmers have been reluctant to take basic steps to reduce their pollution into the Chesapeake Bay – and that government has accommodated the farm lobby.
Since at least the 1980's, the bay region states have promoted fencing cattle out of streams as an important strategy to reduce pollution, so that cows can’t muddy stream banks and defecate into waterways.
But more than three decades into the bay cleanup effort, not one of the states requires streamside fencing – and neither the states, nor the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program, even attempt to track how many farmers follow this best management practice. Rough estimates are that about a quarter to a half of farmers fence their cattle out of streams.
"I hear the complaints of the farmers," Fry said. "I can think of several farmers who just go on and on about the cost of the fencing. They say if you make them fence the cows out of the creek, they are going to quit. I think farmers are like anybody else. When you tell them they have to do something, their first reaction is: 'No you’re not. It's my land, and I pay taxes."
Except in this case, nobody told the farmers to do anything. Taxpayer-funded programs in the bay region attempt to encourage farmers by paying for 87 percent to 100 percent of the cost of raising fences and installing alternative drinking water systems for animals that are excluded from streams. But despite the subsidies, most farmers still don’t do follow the practice. In fact, in Pennsylvania, the General Assembly passed a law prohibiting the state’s environmental agency from requiring farmers to raise waterfront fencing.
Seven years ago, the Obama Administration set a goal of using financial incentives to encourage farmers across the bay region to plant a collective total of 900 miles of trees along waterways per year to act as natural filters. But because it is more lucrative and easier for farmers to keep streamside land in corn, they have been signing up for only about 100 to 150 miles of these forested buffers per year, according to the U.S. Forest Service. This means the runoff control effort is far behind.
"Yeah, the last few years have been a lot less than our intended target," said Sally Claggett, Forest Service coordinator for the Chesapeake Bay Program. "We are trying to bring the numbers up, because forested buffers are the best land cover to have next to a stream. They provide the last line of defense as water is coming off the land and entering a waterway – the last opportunity for that water to be filtered."
Fry explained that many farmers don’t like to sign 15-year contracts required to receive annual government payments for the forested buffers, in return for a promise not to farm that land or build on it. Many farmers bristle at the idea of idea of taking that cropland out of production for so long, or preventing the sale and development of parts of their property.
"Well, everybody likes to keep their options open – it doesn’t matter what kind of game you are playing, what business you are in," Fry said.
He added that many farmers – including himself – are financially stressed and worried about the future, and feel like they would benefit from fewer rules. Fry’s family, for example, has been farming its land near the Potomac River, about an hour northwest of Washington, since 1883. But Fry said he doesn’t know how much longer they can hold on. He only earned about $34,000 from the farm last year, and this year may have a negative net income, in part because of the depressed price of milk. "What really needs to happen is that the environmental community needs to really listen to the farmer, and hear what they are saying – and truly hear it, and believe it," Fry said. "Or we are just going to have to go down the path of farmers need to do what they need to do, and regulators need to do what they need to do, and somewhere in the middle there is going to be a clash."
On the positive side, more than 99 percent of Maryland farmers have fertilizer management plans meant to reduce over-application of manure, which is better than Pennsylvania’s 20 percent. But a 2015 survey by a University of Maryland researcher Michele Perez discovered that 61 percent of the farmers with plans do not follow them.
Fry guessed that some farmers may refuse to follow their nutrient management plans because the plans restrict the farmers from applying as much fertilizer as the farmers would like to achieve maximum crop production, which means maximum profit from the land. "Your nutrient management plan is going to restrict you to 150 bushels of corn (per acre) where you know you have the farm potential of going to 300. Why would you do that?" Fry asked. "It’s kind of like buying a Maserati (sports car) and putting a governor on it so it’ll only go 55 miles an hour."
Overlooked is this analogy is the fact that society, in general, benefits from speed limits, even if individual drivers would prefer to drive faster – just as the Chesapeake Bay region benefits from farmers using a limited amount of manure and fertilizer.
Fry said many farmers have a special animus for the federal agency that imposes limits on large livestock operations and protects wetlands on farms, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Fry applauded a vote this week by the Republican-majority U.S. House of Representatives to derail the EPA-led Chesapeake Bay cleanup by stripping EPA of its power to penalize states that fail to meet their bay cleanup goals.
"EPA is a branch of government. They weren’t voted there," Fry said. "I think we’ve done a tremendous amount of good in the Chesapeake Bay region. We didn’t have to have the EPA hammering us to get that done. I think we could have done that within our state."
Water quality data do not support this argument. Between 1987, when Maryland and the other bay states signed their first state-led cleanup agreement, and 2010, there was no improvement in water quality in the bay, according to annual bay report cards issued by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. That failure of the states prompted environmentalists to sue EPA in 2009 to force the federal agency to take the lead in the Chesapeake restoration efforts. Since EPA’s greater involvement in 2010, the bay’s health has begun to tick upward.
An encouraging sign from farmers in Maryland is that they are planting more than 400,000 acres a year in cover crops such as wheat, rye and barley. The farmers usually plant the crops in the fall and winter without fertilizer, to absorb excess nitrogen and phosphorus that remains in the soil from summer corn and soybeans.
"I tell a lot of people, of all the great things we’ve done over the years, cover crops are the best," Fry said. "They suck up the nutrients that are left over and just improve the soil productivity."
It should be noted, however, that Maryland taxpayers pay $24 million a year to farmers to subsidize these cover crops. And if this government funding to farmers ever dried up, because of a change in administrations or a budget crunch, the farmers would likely stop this bay-friendly practice, and the same old high levels of pollution would pour back in the next season.
"Cover crops are not a behavior change, and it’s not a long term practice," said Tom Simpson, a soil and water quality expert who is senior scientist at Aqua Terra Science LLC, an environmental consulting firm. "It’s a good practice, and a critical practice for cleaning up water quality. But we need to figure out how to make it more lasting and have greater certainty that it will continue on, without depending on next year’s budget."
Because of the slowness of the Chesapeake region states to really push the agricultural industry to change, the bay is not on track to meet EPA pollution reduction targets for 2025 (the so-called Bay pollution “diet” or Total Maximum Daily Load), Simpson said. If the states blow this deadline, it will be the third time they’ve missed a bay cleanup deadline – with efforts also falling short in 2000 and 2010.
"The level of effort will have to increase immensely in all sectors, but particularly in agriculture," Simpson said. "We are far behind."