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.

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