Are Farmers Still the 'Original Environmentalists?'

Commentary by Michael Akey

“Farmers are the original environmentalists.” That’s the phrase I heard a few times during a recent Maryland 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 can't be asked to limit the application of manure on their fields. “Pennsylvania pollutes more than anyone, why should we be responsible?” “Fencing out livestock from streams is expensive!” “Poultry manure isn’t as bad as everyone says! It’s not 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 Carroll County, I understand the costs involved in starting up 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. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office in Westminster was a huge help in getting us on our feet. The lessons I’ve learned, and what I’ve observed, 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 much did the fencing for the rest of the farm cost? To help create paddocks for rotational grazing, they paid for 87 percent of the cost of the fencing!

Compost facilities, gutters and downspouts, energy-free watering systems, digging wells, water lines and watering troughs, were all cost shared by state and federal programs. The program for winter manure storage? 87 percent of the cost of construction is covered. Maryland’s Agricultural Cost-share Program (MACS) 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 still find excuses.

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? According to Chesapeake Bay Program’s 2009 Data, approximately 68 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from Carroll County that threatens Maryland waters and the Chesapeake Bay comes from a single source: farms. Throughout the watershed, agriculture is the largest source for these pollutants.

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, 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 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.

Michael Akey owns Green Akey’s Family Farm, which raises grass-fed beef and lamb. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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