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Water quality lessons from East Coast farmers come to the Midwest

For many East Coast farmers, sandy beaches and gentle waves don’t represent an oasis away from stressful days in the field. Instead, they’re another piece of the already complicated puzzle of farming. 

The Chesapeake Bay watershed, which spans 64,000 square miles in Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia, boasts the largest land-to-water ratio of any coastal water body. Decades of pollution runoff from the watershed has riddled the bay with algae and dead zones (areas with little to no oxygen).

“Algae will shade the water,” says Beth McGee, the director of science and agri - cultural policy for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “One of our more important ecological features in the bay are underwater grasses. Those grasses need sunlight, and if the water’s murky, they can’t grow.” 

Algae decomposition poses another challenge due to the oxygen it consumes. “So, during the summer we have big areas of the bay that are without oxygen,” says McGee. 

Agriculture is partially targeted for these problems. 

“Agriculture accounts for roughly, depending on whether you’re talking about nitrogen or phosphorus, 40% of the pollution going into the bay,” says McGee. 

This has spurred changes in farming practices. Cover crops and no-till are standard fare for many watershed farms. To facilitate this change, farmers receive powerful incentives. Maryland farmers can glean up to $95 per acre for planting cover crops. 

Ultimately, what’s happened in the Chesapeake Bay may happen in the Midwest, bay officials believe. As consumers look to agriculture as a solution for environmental improvement, and food becomes more emotional, Midwestern farmers could face more scrutiny.

Chelsea Dinterman

Bay Cleanup History

In 1983, three state governors, the mayor of Washington, D.C., and the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) signed the first Chesapeake Bay agreement. This set the framework for a federal and state partnership to clean up the bay.

“It was prompted by a 1977 study that identified nitrogen and phosphorus as the main pollutants affecting the bay,” McGee says. “The pollutants were coming from all six states in the bay watershed and the District of Columbia, so it needed to be a watershed-wide effort to restore down - stream water quality.” 

Over the next few decades, a series of agreements followed. While the framework was set, the voluntary commitments lacked accountability and little changed. In 2010, the Chesapeake Bay Blueprint was formed. Backed by years of science and studies, the EPA capped nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) pollution of the bay. 

“The EPA distributed those caps of nitrogen and phosphorus to the states, and the states then developed plans in order to achieve those pollution reduction goals,” McGee says. 

In line with the Clean Water Act, the EPA agreed to hold states accountable to implement these plans over time. Now, with the 2025 deadline approaching, the clock is ticking.

Agriculture’s Role

While state plans to clean the bay include upgrading wastewater plants and reducing urban pollution, agriculture remains a key concern. 

“We’ve certainly made progress in reducing pollution, but the bottom line is 2025 is only a few years away, and it looks like it’s going to be a big stretch to meet the 2025 goals,” McGee says. 

While the cleanup effort remains mostly voluntary, a combination of regulations and programs have pushed farmers toward conservation-minded farming. 

It’s working for Steve Isaacson, whose Earleville, Maryland, farm is less than 10 miles from the bay. 

“What’s good for the Chesapeake Bay is good for our farm,” Isaacson says. “All these practices start with all the partnerships that we have.” 

Isaacson works with an array of people, from USDA programs to climate-driven organizations, to make it all work. 

Collaborations with the Farm Service Agency and other organizations enable all parties to communicate plans. “It’s all in an effort to keep everything in balance,” Isaacson says. “In return for telling them what we’re going to do, we get a lot of support.”

Nutrient Management

Nutrient management regulations developed from university recommendations help farmers in Maryland and Delaware nix excessive fertilizer applications. 

“That piece of it is restrictive in one way, but the universities and the state departments of agriculture develop recommendations for farmers to make profitable decisions,” says Jen Nelson, executive director for the state association of conservation districts in Maryland and Delaware.

Watershed research also examines the best time to apply nutrients. 

“The science in our area puts a real focus on the timing of fertilizers to make sure that you’re applying them as effectively as possible,” Nelson says. “Fertilizer is really expensive, so all of this goes back to farm profitability and how you make the most use of those inputs.”

While nutrient management paperwork can be a headache, Isaacson has seen the benefits on his farm. 

“Nutrients in the soil are like money in the bank,” Isaacson says. “You have to manage them to your best interest.” 

A deeper understanding of nutrient requirements allows him to make smart decisions, especially in years where fertilizer prices rise. 

Under-application, of course, is something to avoid. However, nutrient management has enabled Isaacson to conserve fertilizer applications. 

“There are phosphorous and potash levels that we can draw from our [soil fertility] bank account for a little bit and just put in a replacement amount,” he says.

Andrew and Steve Isaacson photographed by Chelsea Dinterman.

Cover Crops

In Maryland, a robust cover crop program pays farmers to adopt the practice. 

“Maryland spends somewhere in the neighborhood of $22 million a year,” Nelson says. “One thing to point out about the cover crop subsidies is that cover crops are managed differently in the Chesapeake Bay than they are elsewhere.” 

Practices to improve water quality, such as higher seeding rates, can make the practice more expensive to implement.

“A heavy seeding rate helps ensure the cover crops are effective in taking up nutrients in the fall,” Nelson says. “The programs are there to help cover the cost of adopting cover crop planting as well as people’s time.” 

Is It Working?

By most measures, the Chesapeake Bay Blueprint is positively impacting the bay’s health. 

“We’re seeing an improving trend in many areas of the bay, which is really encouraging,” Nelson says. “But the bay is complicated, too. There’s a significant time lag in many areas from when you adopt a practice to when that impact shows up in water quality.” 

Despite the encouraging news, reduction goals aren’t likely to be met by 2025 unless efforts are stepped up. Pennsylvania, in particular, has lagged in implementation efforts, says McGee.

“Pennsylvania is woefully behind the other states,” McGee says. “I think one reason they’re woefully behind in meeting their cleanup goals is because they don’t have the resources that the other states have devoted.” 

The health of the bay isn’t the only thing depending on the success of the blueprint plan. 

“The whole country is watching what happens,” Isaacson says. “I know in Iowa, there’s certain watersheds and rivers downstream from the hog farm or the grain farm. Watching what we’ve already gone through is probably something they’re going to have to contend with as food and agriculture become more emotional to the public.” 


What It Means To the Midwest 

The Chesapeake Bay isn’t the only watershed facing problems caused by pollution. Many states within the Midwest impact the health of the Mississippi River and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico.

Like the initial Chesapeake Bay proposals, plans to reduce pollution in the Midwest are voluntary, but they don’t match the collaboration the East Coast has created with the Chesapeake Bay Blueprint. 

“There’s no formal collaboration or any holistic approach to addressing water quality in the Mississippi watershed,” says Alicia Vasto, water program director for the Iowa Environmental Council. “It’s mostly just information sharing between states.”

In 2013, Iowa adopted the Nutrient Reduction Strategy Plan with the goal to reduce runoff pollution. Reduced tillage and increased cover crop use has drastically increased in recent years. 

For example, Iowa has increased cover crops from an estimated 10,000 acres in 2008 to 2 million acres today, says Heath Ellison, senior field services program manager for the Iowa Soybean Association’s Research Center for Farming Innovation (RCFI). 

“In the last 10 to 15 years cover crops have grown exponentially,” Ellison says. “We continue to see that adoption curve accelerate as more farmers try out the practice.” 

Other programs, such as the 4Rs nutrient stewardship plan, have also increased Midwest farmers’ understanding of nutrient efficiency, Ellison says. 

Even with increased involvement on the part of farmers, it will take time for tangible progress to be seen. 

“We’re a decade into this nutrient reduction strategy, but it’s going to be a significant amount of time yet before we actually see the impacts downstream,” Ellison says. “It’s such a complicated system between unique soils and hydrology and weather patterns.” 

A lack of set standards has left the plan largely unsuccessful, believes Vasto. 

“That strategy is a failed strategy,” says Vasto. “It doesn’t have benchmarks or timelines associated with it or any kind of opportunity for rethinking the strategy or revision or enforcement.”

Chelsea Dinterman

Looming Regulations 

While environmental groups have refrained from compelling the EPA to take a larger role in Midwest water pollution, it’s a strategy they keep in mind. 

“That [Chesapeake Bay] situation is pretty unique in that the EPA has really stepped in and required states to do more,” Vasto says. “In my mind, we would appreciate that kind of involvement and oversight from the EPA to help states in the Midwest actually do more and do better. There’s improvement happening there.” 

Although many farmers staunchly oppose regulatory programs, they may be inevitable in the Midwest if drastic change isn’t seen soon, believes Dan Bjorklund, an agronomist for Landus. 

“There has been some progress, but not to the 40% level that they wanted,” Bjorklund says. “If we can’t find a way to work together and to do it voluntarily, there are more people in the cities that will eventually say enough is enough, and they’ll put regulations in.”

Research and Innovation
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation also owns Clagett Farm, which offers 283 acres for experimentation and education on regenerative agricultural practices. 
“We’ve learned that agriculture is the No. 1 source of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, but it’s not as simple as not growing food,” says Jared Planz, the farm’s vegetable production manager. 

The farm aims to unite farmers and environmental groups, while also connecting the public to the land their food comes from. 

“There’s a saying that an acre looks awfully small on a piece of paper,” Planz says. “Farming is a hard world and a hard way to make a living. Instead of us telling people how to farm, we come out and farm ourselves. We try to learn about these practices and see how we can farm in ways that reduce runoff while still providing nourishing food for the community.” 

Rotational grazing, strip-tilling, and cover cropping are just a few of the practices Clagett Farms utilizes to find harmony between profitable farming and lessened environmental impact. 

“I still feel like a farmer who’s tied to those families that have supported this farm, and I’m trying to deliver food to people,” Planz says. “While I’m also doing education and bay restoration, I very much care about yield and making this financially viable.”

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