Excuses, excuses: Still fair to call farmers environmentalists?
By Michael Akey
“Farmers are the original environmentalists.”
That’s the phrase I heard several times during a recent state legislature committee hearing on a bill that would limit when farmers could apply manure and other fertilizers on croplands. Now, common sense would dictate that plants don’t take up nutrients when plants are not growing, and science tells us that during the winter these nutrients either seep into the water table or run off into the Chesapeake Bay.
Every possible excuse was heard as to why farmers just cannot be asked to limit the application of manure on their fields:
• “Other states pollute more; why should we be responsible?”
• “Fencing out livestock from streams is expensive.”
• “Poultry manure isn’t a waste product; it’s a benefit.”
It seems that farmers just do not want to take responsibility for the waste and manure produced on their farms. But are these excuses really valid?
As a farmer in Maryland, I understand the costs involved in starting a farm from scratch. I also understand the challenges involved in farming in a traditional way, where the animals can graze and the manure is utilized responsibly. While it was Maryland's Natural Resources Conservation Service office that helped get us on our feet, the lessons I’ve learned apply throughout the mid-Atlantic.
What about the cost for fencing animals out of our streams, so that they are not polluting the stream with their own manure? State and Federal cost-sharing programs paid for 112 percent of the cost. How about the cost of fencing the rest of the farm? To help create paddocks for rotational grazing, the programs paid for 87 percent of the cost.
What about compost facilities, gutters, downspouts, energy-free watering systems, wells, water lines, and watering troughs. All were cost-shared by state and federal programs. And that program for winter manure storage? It turns out that 87 percent of the construction cost is covered.
Maryland has an agricultural cost-share program that has subsidized more than $125 million in farm conservation practices since 1982. I don’t know of any other industry where the public subsidizes proper waste management for the manufacturer. Yet, some farmers still find excuses.
According to 2009 data from the Chesapeake Bay Program, approximately 68 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from Carroll County that threatens waters including the Chesapeake Bay comes from farms. Throughout the watershed, agriculture is the largest source of these pollutants.
The politics of personal responsibility seems to come to an abrupt, screeching halt at the end of the farm lane. Why is it that some farmers seem to refuse to take responsibility for the waste generated on their farms and instead blame everyone but themselves?
The issue of water quality in the Chesapeake Bay is not a liberal or a conservative issue. It is an issue for all of us. The economy of our region depends heavily on the Bay. Oysters, crabs, fish, sportsmen, tourism, transportation– they all depend on a healthy bay. Everyone wants safe water for our children to swim and fish in. Everyone wants a clean and safe environment.
If it is true that farmers were the “original environmentalists,” then it is imperative that we farmers must take up that mantle once again and start taking personal responsibility for what we produce. It can be done. The programs to help are already in place. We cannot afford to wait any longer.
Author Michael Akey owns Green Akey’s Family Farm, which raises grass-fed beef and lamb. Essay distributed by Bay Journal News Service.Read more on: farming