Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Chesapeake Bay and the Farm Bill

About every five years, Congress passes comprehensive agricultural legislation, popularly referred to as “the farm bill.” The last farm bill was passed in 2008 and at more than 1700 pages, included policies related to crop insurance and crop subsidies, food stamps, school lunches, renewable energy, and the conservation of our natural resources. The policy initiatives passed as part of the 2008 farm bill are set to expire in 2012, and Congress is now faced with passing a new farm bill, while at the same time dealing with one of the worst budget climates in history.

Farmers are often criticized for getting too much in the way of government payments, and as such, federal farm programs of all kinds have been cast as easy targets for deep spending reductions. As policymakers work to determine funding priorities, it is important to remember the essential role farmers play producing the food and fiber on which our very way of life depends. Helping to ensure that American farmers can remain on the land and make a living has long been a priority in the United States, and while there is certainly room for reform, it must remain a priority in the future.

Farmland conservation must also remain a priority for the next farm bill, because crops and livestock are not the only important things that a farmer produces for the benefit of the broader public. For along with corn and chickens, farmers are producing cleaner air, cleaner water and quality fish and wildlife habitat that improve the well-being of all Americans. And while as of yet there is no market for the environmental benefits farmers produce, federal farm conservation programs prevent farmers from having to bear the cost of conservation alone. While farmers have long been good stewards of the land and water, voluntary farm bill conservation programs add critical capacity to their desire to do what’s right.

As we struggle to make progress on cleaning up the Chesapeake, it can sometimes be easy to place the burden on the region’s farmers. While farmers share some of the responsibility for the plight of the Bay, it bears remembering that perhaps no other group has done more, more effectively, for the cleanup of the Bay than the watershed’s farmers.

Since 2003, utilizing farm bill conservation programs, farmers in the region have reduced sediment loss by 55 percent and phosphorous loss by 40 percent. One of the major drivers of toxic algae blooms in the Bay, nitrogen, has been reduced in subsurface flows by 31 percent and in surface flows by 42 percent. Conservation programs have also led to a reduction in pesticide loss from fields by 24 percent. What do all this numbers mean? Put simply, they mean that nutrients and soil are staying where they belong and not becoming the fuel on which the next Chesapeake catastrophe will feed.

There is not a one-size-fits-all formula for achieving the types of results outlined above. On a farm in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, stabilizing a stream bank and implementing delayed grazing practices for dairy cattle could help to form the basis of a runoff reduction plan. On the Eastern Shore of Maryland, a successful strategy might combine a permanent wetland restoration with the establishment of a forested buffer and the adoption of a conservation crop rotation. With assistance provided by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) farmers get the financial and technical support they need to develop and implement the right plan for their farm.

Yet while agriculture has already done much, it is likely that with the ongoing development of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Implementation Plans, the so-called Chesapeake pollution diet, farmers will be looked upon to do even more to ensure a healthy future for the Bay. Provided that the farm bill once again contains a robust suite of conservation programs, including the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative (CBWI), then the tools are there for farmers to meet the pollution diet head on; a win for farmers and a win for the Chesapeake.

On 3.4 million farmland acres across the Bay region, there is still much work to be done. According to a report released by the NRCS in early 2011, the potential upside for treatment of these acres of “high to moderate treatment need” is extraordinary. A subset of those 3.4 million acres, 810,000 acres which have been identified as eroding more quickly and subject to more nutrient runoff than average are in the most critical need of treatment. If targeted with conservation practices successfully, NRCS estimates that sediment loss due to water could be reduced by 2.3 tons per acre each and every year, keeping nearly 2 million tons of silt out of the Chesapeake Bay annually.

Perhaps even more astounding are the potential reductions in nitrogen pollution, which could be reduced by 53 pounds per acre annually on the most sensitive lands. Through good nitrogen management practices, including proper rate and timing of fertilizer application, farmers could keep 21,000 tons of nitrogen in the fields feeding crops, not in the Bay feeding algae; all the while saving farmers significant money in input costs.

With a full complement of conservation programs in the next farm bill, those numbers may very well become reality: the second half of an already successful story of voluntary conservation on the cropland of the Chesapeake. And while the Chesapeake pollution diet is subject to further development, review and, unfortunately, litigation, farm bill conservation programs will continue to quietly make big progress on reducing pollution in the Bay.

However, despite demonstrable results and the promise of an even brighter future, these programs are at risk of drastic reductions as the 2012 farm bill moves through Congress on a vastly accelerated timeline. Gaining control of our nation’s deficit is important; but an ounce of prevention is still worth a pound of the cure. Chesapeake farmers and conservationists alike couldn’t pick a better time to sing the praises of farm bill conservation programs than right this minute.

Steve Kline is the Director of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s Center for Agricultural Lands. He lives on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The following commentary is scheduled to be published in the October 25 issue of The Delmarva Farmer.

Pollution is expensive, and that’s not just the obvious costs associated with clean-up. Before nitrogen or phosphorous ever jump start an algae bloom in the Chesapeake Bay, much of it starts as a purchase a farmer makes at his local agriculture supply store. Fertilizer comprises a significant portion of a farmer’s overhead, so when it runs off of a corn field and begins its journey to the Bay, it’s like a stream of dollar bills disappearing into the creeks and streams of the Chesapeake watershed.

Same goes for topsoil, which can be blown away with the wind or carried away by the rain. Topsoil comprises the foundation of any farmer’s business plan; without it a farm operation is doomed to fail. And unlike fertilizer, topsoil cannot be easily replaced next growing season. When topsoil enters the water it chokes out sunlight from submerged grasses essential for the health of the Bay. Oysters are also wiped out by the silt, unable to escape being buried by mud.

Losing fertilizer and soil is a costly proposition for farmers and the Chesapeake; as such, making investments in programs that help farmers to apply only the fertilizers their crops require and that reduce runoff and erosion is a compelling way to make progress on long-standing problems. Thankfully, such programs already exist and are achieving results. Since 2003, federal farm conservation programs have reduced sediment loss on Chesapeake cropland by 55 percent, surface runoff of nitrogen by 42 percent, and loss of phosphorous by 41 percent; a few bright spots on an otherwise dim track record of Bay restoration.

Farmers have done more than any other sector to clean up their act on behalf of the Chesapeake. But as the newly created Chesapeake pollution diet is implemented, it is likely that farmers will have to do even more or possibly face the specter of increased regulation. Regulation is a four letter word in agriculture, strongly opposed by most industry groups as something just as threatening to farmers as floods or droughts. But unlike the weather, farmers have the ability to control how they meet new requirements.

Yet, troublingly, some of those same industry groups have recommended cutting voluntary farm conservation programs in favor of propping up crop insurance and farm subsidy budgets, which are often referred to as the farm safety net. The programs they suggest cutting are the same programs that will help farmers comply with new and existing regulations. Conservation has now become part of the farm safety net and the alternative to these incentive-based programs is likely a shift to a penalty-based paradigm that few farmers would support.

Conservation programs have proven incredibly popular with farmers over the years; helping them to do the right thing for the environment while making a living producing food and fiber for the world. With additional regulations potentially on the horizon, it may be time for agriculture industry groups to consider what a future without voluntary conservation program might look like for farmers.

Steve Kline is the Director of the Center for Agricultural Lands at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. He lives on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

The Case Against Question 5

You may have noticed over on Facebook or in comment forums across the interwebs that a select few of the most partisan operators around are baying like cur dogs about the inequity! the unfairness! of Governor Martin O' Malley's recently released redistricting plan for Maryland's 8 Congressional districts. According to the Governor's commission on redistricting, 70% of Marylanders remain in their current district under the proposed plan, but that hasn't stopped the most rabidly partisan amongst us (and mostly Republicans at that) from screaming about the sheer partisanship reflected in the new redistricting plan.

It's been a long time since I've agreed with Republicans in Maryland about much of anything, but I agree with them about the purely partisan motivation of the redistricting plan. In an attempt to win seven of eight Congressional seats in 2012, the Democrats running the state have brought Roscoe Bartlett's Western Maryland district far down into that hotbed of liberal thinking, Montgomery County. The new 6th now includes Gaithersburg, Germantown, and portions of Rockville and its environs. The Washington suburbs are full of new immigrants of varying levels of legality, but are also chock full of well compensated and well educated DC commuters who, by and large, tend to vote for Democrats. These same voters have sent Democratic Congressman Chris Van Hollen to the House for the past five terms.

But truth be told, the changes in the 6th also create a much more competitive 8th district in which Van Hollen will likely have to compete against a credible challenger, and will actually have to campaign. More personally dismaying from my standpoint is that the new 1st district now extends further west than ever before, and some of the newly encompassed ground includes portions of Carroll County, northern Baltimore County, and a majority of Harford County. Carroll County citizens don't have a ton in common with Somerset County citizens, but that was not foremost on the minds of the Governor's Redistricting Task Force. They were willing to sacrifice ten years of inevitable Republican representation in the 1st for the sake of knocking off Roscoe out west.

Much as I don't support anything Andy Harris says or does, I don't necessarily want him to be summarily kicked from office because of a redistricting effort led largely by the other party. What I want are fair election districts, where a diverse array of candidates and ideas can be heard and where the election results are not preordained. This is where I differ from the GOP.

Maryland GOP leaders, which is something of an oxymoron given their permanent minority status, are calling the governor's plan unfair. Which implies that if they were in office, they would not be attempting the same type of shenanigans, which put the interests of partisan politics ahead of the interests of the people of Maryland. Of course, this is not the case. All over the country, Republican led states are doing precisely the same things, trying to finagle Congressional boundary lines for the sake of GOP advantage at the ballot box. There is no question that if the Republicans were in charge in Maryland, they would be doing exactly what they decry the Democrats for doing. No wonder 89% of Americans think that Congress is dysfunctional, we are represented by politicians who think first of personal ambition, then Party, and then the people, and always in that order.

Gerrymandering, the practice of altering Congressional district boundary lines in creative ways for partisan ends got its start by Elbridge Gerry (and as a side note, he pronoounced his last name similar to Gary not Jerry, so I am always sure to pronounce the word properly as garymandering, and not jerrymandering)who started this tradition as Governor of Massachusetts in 1812.

However, the lack of competition in our House seats is eroding the quality of our elected officials, and as such, is eroding the quality of our political debate. The vast majority of Congressional seats are now held firmly by one Party or the other, with incumbents virtually assured a safe seat as long as they care to serve. This only serves to create a House of Representatives full of the most partisan champions imaginable, whose commitment to ensuring gridlock is generally applauded at home, at the expense of progress and problem solving.

Some states have started to dabble with fair election rules, but only when the electorate clamors for genuine good government. As long as partisans rewrite the election rules every ten years, we will only ever have partisan driven redistricting. It is time to implement a truly fair system for holding elections, one where boundary lines are computer generated, with only population and regional equity as part of the determining formula. No more legislative districts that are only the width of a road in order to get to some select conservative or liberal neighborhood. The people should demand that their representation not be selected for them, if elections no longer matter, what else does?

I hope you will consider joining me in voting AGAINST Question 5 on the statewide ballot.