This is the first article in a series on farming in the Chesapeake Bay region after federal regulators imposed strict mandatory rules that limit fertilizer applications. Despite mixed evidence that the regulations have improved the bay’s water, environmental groups and others are pushing for similar regulations in Iowa and the entire Mississippi River valley.
The farm landscape in the Chesapeake Bay watershed changes considerably from state to state, but farmers there are dealing with a common challenge — a so-called "pollution diet" imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The pollution diet, established in 2010, is aimed at cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay by limiting the amount of nutrients, or total daily maximum loads (TMDLs), entering waterways from agricultural, urban and industrial sources.
For farmers, that means limits on the timing, amount and type of fertilizer that can be applied, whether it’s on the tree-lined fields of Virginia, sandy soils in eastern Maryland or the rolling hills of Pennsylvania — and no matter the weather or field conditions.
"It’s something we’ve had to live with," said Keith Horsley (pictured below, checking cover crop residue), who grows corn, soybeans and wheat on 1,300 acres near Hayes, Virginia. "The government makes the (rules) about it, and we’ve got to abide by it. It’s an adjustment."
Farmers are all for cleaning up the water in the Chesapeake Bay, but they have serious questions about whether the rules will achieve water quality targets or if they’ll face another round of regulations.
That’s because evidence that the burdensome regulations have been successful in making necessary water quality improvements remains very murky. By some measures, water quality has improved in the Chesapeake region, and by others, it hasn’t.
But that hasn’t stopped environmental groups from using the Chesapeake as an example for the vast Mississippi River valley, which includes Iowa.
Coming to Iowa?
The Chesapeake’s pollution diets were introduced in response to a hypoxia zone, an area of oxygen-depleted water where aquatic life cannot survive. A similar hypoxia zone in the Gulf of Mexico has led some environmental activists to call for Chesapeake-style regulations to be enacted in the Mississippi River basin.
However, there are a litany of reasons why the Chesapeake approach is a very bad fit for farmers in the Mississippi River watershed, said Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey. For one, the Mississippi River basin, encompassing more than 1.2 million square miles across 31 states, is almost 20 times the Chesapeake.
The more heavily populated eastern states also have much more generous financial incentives to get farmers to apply conservation practices like cover crops, Northey said. Maryland, for example, pays up to $100 per acre for traditional cover crops with no acreage caps. By comparison, Iowa offers first-time cover crop users $25 per acre in cost share on limited acres.
"They have softened the mandatory approach by giving farmers money to comply with the mandatory regulations," said Northey. "It’s a matter of scale. They have more people than they have acres, so that allows them to generate tax dollars that can contribute toward their agriculture. It would take an awful lot of state money to do the same kind of thing here."
The Chesapeake Bay watershed spans 64,000 square miles, or 40 million acres, crossing six states and the District of Columbia, and is home to more than 17 million people. The land area is slightly larger than the state of Iowa, which is just over 56,000 square miles, or 36 million acres.
The EPA’s Chesapeake Bay directive requires states in the watershed to develop Watershed Implementation Plans for achieving target reductions from agriculture and other sources by 2025. Each state’s plan is slightly different, but Maryland, Virginia and Delaware all enacted mandatory nutrient management plans. Each state also has goals for adoption of conservation practices like cover crops and no-till, although incentives differ from state to state and have changed over time.
"One of the first things when we started (is) they wanted you to no-till your corn," said Stephen Ellis (pictured left checking his wheat crop), who grows corn, soybeans, wheat and barley near Champlain, Virginia. "The next step is they’re pushing us toward cover crops after beans so that you have something growing from then until the corn is planted in April."
The mandatory nutrient management plans in Virginia and Maryland are similar to Iowa’s manure management plans, except they are required for all fields regardless of whether fertilizer is from a commercial or animal source.
Maryland requires soil tests at least every three years, although farmer Jason Scott says he tests his fields more often.
"We do every field, every year," said Scott, a Pioneer seed dealer and U.S. Wheat Associates board member from Hurlock, Maryland. "Because we’re so limited, we want to know what’s out there."
Soil test directive
The soil test results direct farmers how much fertilizer, including nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, can be applied to crops during the next growing season.
"They basically tell you, based on your yield, how much fertilizer you can apply," said Horsley, who farms along the York River, which feeds into the Chesapeake Bay. "It can vary from field to field."
He said he can apply up to 110 pounds of nitrogen on some of his wheat fields, but others are capped at 40 pounds of nitrogen. Writing the plans is no small task, given that Horsley’s farm is made up of about 100 choppy fields averaging 11 to 12 acres in size.
Scott said he writes two sets of plans for many of his fields, one for corn and one for soybeans, so he can maintain planting flexibility. "You put in your yield goal, and the model will tell you how much nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium you are able to put out," he said.
In most cases, fall nitrogen applications are prohibited and spring applications can’t take place until March 1, he said.
Farmers can either go through a training program to be certified to write their own plan or hire a crop consultant to do it for $3 to $4 an acre, Scott said. The state conducts audits on a percentage of the nutrient management plans each year.
Making voluntary efforts
In some cases, farmers in the Chesapeake Bay states are going beyond the regulations because it makes the soil more productive. In other cases, they must work around regulations, like rigid dates for fertilizer application and cover crop planting and termination.
Ellis, who farms along the Rappahannock River, said he adopted no-till practices in the mid-1990s. "We were ahead of the mandatory regulations. We started it a little ahead of time because we saw it coming," he said. "It’s better to start at your own pace and do things you’re comfortable with before somebody tells you to do it."
Horsley and his dad, Clem, were recognized last winter as the first farmers in Virginia to implement a voluntary resource management plan on a portion of their acres, which goes a step beyond the mandatory nutrient management plans. In addition to fertilizer restrictions, the resource management plan incorporates conservation practices like buffers, setbacks and erosion control measures. Horsley, who says some of the family’s farm ground hasn’t been tilled since the 1940s, found he already met or exceeded the qualifications simply by doing what he sees as best for the land.
"For this plan, we didn’t have to implement (anything new) because we were already doing the buffers, we were already doing the setbacks, so we were in compliance to begin with," he said.
Horsley and Scott are using the latest technology like variable rate applications and field mapping to precisely apply fertilizer when and where it will do the most good. "In my opinion, that probably helps the Chesapeake more than the mandatory nutrient plans," Scott said.
The trouble with the regulations is that they don’t allow farmers to adjust for weather conditions, Horsley said. For example, Virginia’s cost-share program requires cover crops to be planted by Nov. 15, even though the weather might permit much later planting some years.
"We’ve planted up to Christmas and had just as good a stand," he said. "It just depends on the weather. But our hands are tied with the nutrient management plan."
In addition to being costly, Iowa’s Northey said imposing regulations would stifle the creativity and innovation that farmers are showing as they work to achieve the goals set forth in Iowa’s voluntary Nutrient Reduction Strategy.
The lawsuit filed by the Des Moines Water Works against three drainage districts in northwest Iowa threatens to derail that progress, the Iowa agriculture secretary added.
Years after the Chesapeake Bay regulations were implemented, success or failure remains difficult to measure and finger-pointing is cropping up. Water quality in the bay has improved somewhat, according to a 2014 report by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, but populations of some fish species have declined.
For all of the focus on agriculture, farmers say some of the biggest challenges to cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay come from an ever-expanding urban population.
An estimated 150,000 people move into the watershed every year and urban encroachment gobbles up valuable farmland.
More regulation ahead
Chesapeake Bay farmers are casting a wary eye toward 2017, which is the mid-point of the EPA’s 15-year plan to clean up the bay. By 2017, the EPA directive requires states to achieve at least 60 percent of their targeted nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment reductions. The agency has threatened to withhold funding from states that fall short of their goals, and farmers fear regulations will be tightened.
"I think we’re going to have another hit in 2017. That’s another milestone," Horsley said.
Farmers want to see the bay water quality improved, Clem Horsley noted, but there are some activist groups whose livelihoods depend on pushing for stricter regulations or filing lawsuits. Money always seems to be aimed at finding problems instead of solutions, he said.
Lawmakers are also pressured to impose regulations before the source of problems are known, Scott said. Maryland’s mandatory nutrient management program was started in 2000 after poultry litter was blamed for toxic algae blooms, a finding that was later called into question, he said.
While Maryland’s ag sector is ahead of the state’s wastewater sector in achieving its nutrient reduction goals, Scott said it’s important to remember that making the Chesapeake Bay cleaner is a long-term effort, a fact often lost amid regulations enacted with a specific end date in mind.
"People want immediate results," he said. "This isn’t a five-year fix, or even a 10- or 20-year fix. It’s going to take 50 years or more to see the Chesapeake Bay get healthy."
Visit the Spokesman Extra page for a map of the Chesapeake Bay watershed and video interviews of farmers in the region.