COLUMNS


Strategies That Work on the Ground, Not on Paper

By Carl T. Shaffer


Like many business owners, farmers meticulously plan for the future. We think about what is best for our family operation on a short and long-term basis. This is especially true when it comes to maintaining our land and water resources.

When I make rotation and planting decisions on my farm, I look at what works. I examine my yields, soil samples and the cost of raising a crop. Overall, I consider the long-term health of my farm. That starts from the bottom up.

Healthy soils grow healthy crops. Farmers know that, and we treat our land accordingly. For decades, we have been protecting our land and improving our soils. Finally, someone took notice.

Recently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released a study looking at agricultural practices in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and the runoff reductions being made in the bay watershed states (http://1.usa.gov/1ebmGqk).

The USDA study shows that farmers are vigorously pursuing environmental quality on their farms and are making a measurable and direct impact.

Due to continuous no-till, cover crops and other proven methods, scientists are seeing reductions in the amount of soil loss. And as a result, less phosphorus and nitrogen are flowing downstream.

This is not a surprise to those of us who care for the land; we see it every day on our farms.

When we keep our fields covered through the winter months, the soil stays in place better.

Come planting season, our no-till methods save time and money by eliminating the need to turn over the soil and thereby risking erosion caused by wind and water.

I wonder if anyone at the Environmental Protection Agency has gotten the message.

The Pennsylvania Farm Bureau is in the midst of appealing a federal court decision that virtually absolved the EPA of accountability in its unprecedented regulation of farms and communities through its establishment of Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) in Pennsylvania and other Bay states. The EPA's Bay TMDLs are based on shaky legal and data assumptions.

Chief among them is the EPA's assessments of conservation practices farmers are voluntarily implementing in the Bay states.

If the EPA is to be believed, farmers in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast are operating the same way our forebearers did generations ago, with a moldboard plow, and do not take the initiative on our own to implement common-sense conservation practices.

In making its judgment about agricultural practices pursued by Bay farmers, the EPA narrowly focused on the number of federal cost-share dollars used to purchase conservation equipment or change planting strategies. To be sure, many farmers use federal money to upgrade their equipment, take a new approach to cropping or implement on-farm technologies, but that should not be the sole benchmark used to measure progress.

While the EPA was busy drafting its pervasive regulation of the Chesapeake Bay, farmers were already extensively engaged in effective practices to control farm runoff with the help of cooperative extension and conservation district expertise. We've incorporated new technology. We've kept ourselves up-to-date on how we can work smarter and improve our soil.

Pure and simple, we see the benefits to our land, our shrinking environmental footprint and our bottom line when we adopt conservation practices that work for our individual circumstances.

What the folks at the EPA have largely chosen to ignore is how vital the land is to our farms. Without healthy soils, our crops fail.

The USDA report was a confirmation that we are doing things right.

While it pleases me that some in Washington have noticed the improvements farmers are making in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, I'm afraid the news might not have reached the right audience.

This is news that policy makers and EPA regulators need to hear. It's a report of facts that clean water advocates should digest. And hopefully all will gain an understanding of its significance: Voluntary conservation measures on farms are working.

This report reveals the tangible results of conservation practices implemented by farmers even before the federal regulators began micromanaging what state governments, conservation districts and farmers in the watershed must do.

I'm proud of the work Pennsylvania farmers are doing to manage our farms and environment.

We did not grow to become a national leader in no-till agriculture because of the zeal of federal regulators.

Instead, our movement to no-till and other conservation practices was done to secure the long-term viability of our farms, from the ground up.

We are seeing that the EPA's preferred approach to improving water quality is ridden with bureaucratic red tape and would result in all farming activity being federally regulated by having farmers submit mountains of paperwork.

As farmers continue implementing practices to keep our soil on the farm, the farm bureau will continue its work to make sure overreaching regulatory agencies do not use bad science, select partial data, and mandate practices that make little sense.

Carl T. Shaffer is president of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.