Proposed Maryland Legislation Aims to Help Farmers Reduce Agriculture Pollution

(ANNAPOLIS, MD)—On Tuesday, Maryland farmers and environmental advocates testified in favor of new legislation to help farmers more easily add long-term, fixed natural filters such as tree buffers and grass pastures to farms.

The legislation (Senate Bill 597/House Bill 687) would define fixed natural filters in Maryland law and ensure more equitable state funding for the long-term landscape improvements. State Senator Ron Young (D-Frederick County) and Del. Dana Stein (D-Baltimore County) are the bills’ primary sponsors.

Maryland’s current cost-share program is heavily weighted toward helping farmers plant cover crops each year. As a result, cover crop usage in Maryland is high, but there hasn’t been a similar push to help farmers install cost-effective, long-term natural filters.

“Maryland has the opportunity this year to support and incentivize progress toward a new era of farming,” said Rob Schnabel, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s (CBF) Maryland Restoration Biologist. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm for these types of projects and there’s a desire among farmers to install them to improve the environment.”

In 2018, the state’s agriculture cost share program paid out $25 million to farmers. About 80 percent funded annual farming practices—including $18.8 million for cover crops. An additional 15 percent went to farm waste storage and the protection of livestock heavy use areas, and 3 percent funded grassed waterways, which slow the movement of the water to reduce pollution and erosion. The remaining balance funded the installation of stream fencing, watering facilities for livestock, and forest buffers along waterways.

Trees, wetlands, and grass pastures limit Bay pollutants including nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment from running off farm fields during and after rain events. The natural filters also help build healthy soils by keeping the plant nutrients on the land, rather than allowing them to flow into the Bay. When they flow into the Bay, nitrogen and phosphorus fuel harmful algal blooms that create dead zones devoid of oxygen in the water that are uninhabitable for marine life.

Adding more natural filters to Maryland’s agricultural landscape will help the state reach its 2025 Chesapeake Bay cleanup goals. To reach the agriculture sector goal, Maryland must reduce nitrogen pollution from farms by 4.2 million pounds. From 2010 to 2018 the state reduced nitrogen pollution from agriculture by 1.6 million pounds.

Several farmers who had transformed their land with natural filters testified Tuesday about the need for state assistance to help others install the environmental improvements.

“When I first took over Ladybrook Farm in Baltimore County it was in row crops—corn and soybeans—and the soil was badly eroded,” said Vince Matanoski, a farmer who testified in support of the bill. “The farm is now covered with pastures, hayfields, trees, and wildflowers, and the soil is anchored and teeming with life. This transformation was only made possible with federal and nonprofit assistance, that helped us install perimeter fencing, water troughs, and plant trees. The State of Maryland played no part, blocked by statutory limitations.”

Mary Kathryn Barnet, who owns Open Book Farm in Frederick County, testified that when she and her husband purchased their farm in 2016 the fields were badly eroded after decades of row crop farming. The pond on the farm, which was originally 10 feet deep, had filled with sediment and was only about a foot deep. Because the farm was in the Catoctin Watershed, a priority conservation area, she was able to obtain federal funds to install fences and convert the row crop fields to permanent grass pasture. She worked with CBF to plant 1,000 trees near streams on the farm.

“The new grasses, trees, and grazing pastures are now performing a number of ecosystem services,” said Barnet. “We have vastly reduced the erosion of our valuable prime farmland topsoil. By taking land out of conventional row crops and putting it into rotationally grazed pasture we have eliminated fertilizer inputs and are helping to restore the Chesapeake Bay. The roots of our grasses and trees are sequestering atmospheric carbon in the form of underground organic matter. Pasture establishment, tree planting, fences, and waterlines all cost money, and we would have been hard-pressed to achieve the kind of rapid implementation that we did had the burden rested entirely on our shoulders.”

The proposed legislation would also stop the state from using agriculture cost share funds for practices that do not have environmental benefits. This would correct an issue where some funds were being used to help with start-up costs for large chicken farms or other purposes that could create more pollution.

Like the farmers above, CBF is urging the General Assembly to pass this needed legislation to update the agriculture cost sharing program to help other Maryland farmers reduce agriculture pollution by installing sustainable farming practices.

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A.J. Metcalf

Former Maryland Media & Communications Coordinator, CBF

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