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Sustainable Agriculture and its Effect on the Chesapeake and Maryland Coastal Bays - July 18, 2015

Sustainable agriculture around the Chesapeake and Maryland Coastal Bays plays a big part in reducing pollution and runoff from their watersheds. Farmers in the area can use multiple techniques to reduce their need for chemicals and protect their land from erosion. These practices are called BMPs, or Best Management Practices. These practices effectively reduce nitrogen and phosphorus in the bays up to sixty percent, while also reducing the cost of farming in the long run. When agriculturists use environmentally friendly options the bays benefit and so do they.

One technique that is used frequently with the purpose of keeping extra sediment and pollutants out of the bay is cover-cropping. Cover crops like rye, barley, and other small grains are planted directly after summer crops are harvested to prevent nutrient loss over the winter. These plants soak up any left-over fertilizer and keep the soil from eroding. Maryland has its own cover crop program, which provides grants for farmers to plant the crops needed to protect the bays.  

      Certain tools, like stream-side buffers and fencing, are used by farmers to protect the streams around and through their properties. Buffers are created by planting native plants and trees near streams, creeks and brooks so that there is a vegetative area surrounding these waterways. The buffers are about thirty-five feet wide on either side to have maximum effect without taking up too much of a farmer’s pasture or field space. Stream-side buffers absorb excess nutrients and fertilizers, acting as natural filters while also providing habitat for wild life and helping to reduce loose sediment from entering these waterways. Stream-side fencing is also an option for animal pastures that are located on or near streams. Not allowing livestock access to the streams reduces water pollution from waste and cuts down the spread of waterborne diseases and parasites, such as Giardia. Protecting the streams and tributaries to our bays may not seem like a big deal because of how small they are, but they all eventually lead into the bays and contribute to its health, good and bad. 

    One important thing for shore farmers to create is a nutrient management plan, which is most often referred to as a NMP. These plans lay out when the best times to use fertilizers or chemicals, and the amount they need without wasting money on excess. The plans can be focused on livestock or crop management, and they mostly pertain to the correct use of natural resources. 

    Fertilizer is a large issue, whether it is being produced by livestock or used for crop growth. When runoff from nutrient rich lands enters ditches and streams, it brings excess nitrogen and phosphorus into the local streams and creeks, and eventually into the bays. With this excess of nutrients comes algal blooms, which uses up oxygen and can lead to fish kills. When huge algae blooms occur, aquatic habitats can become uninhabitable, caused by the lack of oxygen, loss of food sources, and poor water quality. Nutrient management plans are smart in the way that they help the farmer by decreasing their costs, and also help the bay by keeping out excess nutrients.

    A very conflicting practice used in crop farming, especially with major cash crops around the Eastern shore like corn and soybeans, is no-till farming. Plowing and tillage result in massive amounts of erosion around the world every year, and they contribute to the release of excess carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. When the land is eroded, extra sediment and nutrients end up in the bays, with harmful effects. The idea behind no-till farming is that by not completely turning over the soil every season, less will erode, and there will also be more organic matter to filter runoff. This keeps more nitrogen and phosphorus out of bay waters. However, many local farmers are skeptical of the practice. Considering some farms have been running for generations, they are very hesitant to change their operations, and rightfully so. If their farms have been productive for decades with their current practices, jumping into a new way of farming is not very enticing. Unfortunately for the spread of no-till, if it does not work out for a certain farmer, it is the famer’s livelihood that is being directly impacted.

    Although there are many options for farmers to make their farms more environmentally friendly, it all depends on their willingness to try new practices. Up-front, the cost of sustainable agriculture could have a negative impact on a farmers financial situation, but in the end it produces a more sustainable and environmentally-friendly farm. Every practice mentioned helps to restore the bays, keeping sediment and excess nutrients out of local waterways is very important. In the end, sustainable agriculture benefits both the farmers, the bays and their watersheds.

 

LuAnne Mottley is the STEM Intern for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.

 


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