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Conservation on farms is highly underestimated

Posted: April 25, 2013

ANNAPOLIS - According to a study by soil conservation experts released in March, farmers in Queen Anne's, Kent and Howard counties have been implementing environmentally conscious practices on their own to the extent that the Watershed Implementation Plan will need to be re-evaluated.

Conservation on Maryland farms in general, may be underestimated by 40 to 50 percent according to the data.

Most of these undocumented practices were installed by farmers without technical or financial assistance from state or federal agencies, because it's the right thing to do, the farmers said.

These findings are important because the data that Maryland collects and reports for its WIP comes from cost-share programs. Because these farmer-funded practices were installed outside of traditional cost-share programs and were not documented, they are not given credit as contributing to Maryland's WIP.

Outcomes from two recent projects indicate that implementation of Best Management Practices in these counties may be significantly underestimated. The Upper Chester Farm Assessment, conducted by the Soil Conservation Districts in Kent and Queen Anne's, and a BMP inventory conducted by Howard Soil Conservation District, did on site reviews of conservation practices or BMPs on farms. In both efforts, the Soil Conservation Districts identified more practices than have been accounted for in the agency tracking systems used to inform the Chesapeake Bay Model.

This issue is now being examined by the Chesapeake Bay Program, where a subcommittee is developing criteria for when such BMPs may be credited. Current proposals are focused on to what extent these non-cost shared or voluntary BMPs meet USDA technical standards.

In the Upper Chester Watershed for example, farm assessment planners verified ten riparian grass buffers, filter strips and grassed waterways. They also documented three water control structures and three sediment ponds. Although not large numbers, the Upper Chester Watershed is itself a small area. Put in perspective, if activity in the rest of Maryland were similar to the Upper Chester Watershed, the state's WIP would include implementation of an additional 1,700 acres of grass riparian buffers, 259 acres of retired highly erodible land and 682 water control structures.

The Howard district had similar results in identifying farmer-installed and funded BMPs after an intensive on site review of approximately 30 percent of the farms in the county. This project funded by the Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, identified as many as 50 percent more BMPs functioning on farms than were accounted for in the Chesapeake Bay Model. The majority of these practices were farmer funded and installed. Their analysis concluded there really are not many opportunities to install more conservation practices on farmland in Howard County because the majority of the land is already adequately covered with conservation practices: nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment loss are well below the allowable limits.

Maryland is recognizing the importance of identifying these practices and giving them the credit that they deserve for protecting local water quality. Like these local projects, a larger scale effort will depend on strong partnerships between the Soil Conservation Districts, the Maryland Department of Agriculture, the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, other local partners, and the agricultural community.

Farmers are encouraged to contact their local soil conservation districts and work with staff to verify that BMPs they've installed meet conservation practice standards. Collecting and incorporating this information is vital to making sure that Maryland's WIPs are accurate and fair, that the goals laid out in the plans are attainable, and that the result of water quality improvement efforts will be clean rivers and bays that all of Maryland's citizens can enjoy.