Growers at the leading edge of Chesapeake Bay improvement

Working to continue to reduce each farm or orchard’s sediment and nutrient byproduct and pesticide runoff into watershed areas, and eventually the Chesapeake Bay watershed, is proving effective, but costly.

A trickle irrigation pumping station next to an irrigation pond with an apple orchard in the background at Hollabaugh Bros. This photo also shows the extent of sod cover on the landscape around the pond and in the orchard, as well as the setback of the orchard from the pond itself.

In general, grass-fed, no-till and organic operations are ahead of the curve. Fruit, nut and vegetable growers don’t have animals, and thus no manure, unlike dairy farmers whose costs could skyrocket, all while the price for their product plummets. An orchard’s concern is fertilizer and pesticide application. There’s also some soil erosion, but again no livestock manure runoff.

Practices that utilize extensive sod covers in orchards, the use of fewer pounds of fertilizers per acre than typically used in agronomic crops and the recent conservation techniques within the guidance of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) are contributing to what this one segment of agriculture production is able to do.

“In terms of the total impact to the Chesapeake Bay, fruit growers collectively probably do more to protect and preserve the soil and nutrients than any other commercial agricultural group,” says Brad M. Hollabaugh, general manager of Hollabaugh Bros., Inc. in Biglersville, Pa.

Many of the fruit growers in his area are within the Susquehanna River Basin. The Susquehanna is the largest tributary to the Chesapeake Bay.

For nutrition, Hollabaugh says orchards require relatively low levels of applied nutrients. Since virtually all orchards are established with sod row middles, and generally there are sod barriers between the orchards and any body of water, applied material is largely used by the orchard system and not subject to loss via erosion. With young trees, fertilizers are often hand-applied only to the area immediately around the tree, so there isn’t much of a loss of nutrients there either. “Orchards are generally retained for 15 to 20 years, so there’s a stability built into the cultural practices of growers,” he says.

Many growers, including Hollabaugh Bros., have a working relationship with the NRCS and other organizations. Recently, the Agricultural Management Assistance (AMA)program and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQUIP) under the NRCS promoted a range of conservation practices targeted at the reduction of pesticides and the implementation of trickle irrigation practices to conserve water in general. NRCS funding totaled nearly $21 million in 2010.

Also, the Conservation Stewardship Program under the NRCS provided the opportunity to implement additional conservation practices, including the use of energy conservation through new technologies and the use of year-round pollinator habitats to secure and preserve local insect populations and native bees to aid in natural pollination of crops.

“Truly, the success of these programs is reflected in the fact that many participants continue to use and expand the use of those conservation practices after their contracts are completed,” Hollabaugh says.

A Durand-Wayland airblast sprayer, equipped with Smart Spray technology.

What’s the latest?

As part of a beefed-up Chesapeake Bay Project in 2009, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took the lead to clean up the bay. The program is overseen by the Chesapeake Executive Council, according to Lamonte Garber, Pennsylvania’s agriculture program manager for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

While handled a bit differently in each state, as a sector in the plan, agriculture gets an allocation of pollution (nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment). In Pennsylvania, for example, growers and farmers won’t be responsible for making individual TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load) calculations, but are required to implement best management practices (BMPs) prescribed in conservation plans, as well as Nutrient Management Plans (NMPs). Across the state, all farms must collectively achieve Pennsylvania’s agricultural goal under the bay’s TMDL.

In December 2010, the EPA finalized the updated TMDL, with allocations (acceptable limits) for nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment. Each state then had to write a Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP) detailing how it would achieve the new TMDL. Producers can face consequences for failure to comply with state and federal pollution laws.

“We expect more enforcement of these laws by the states and feds due to the pressure to meet TMDL,” says Garber, who works out of Harrisburg, Pa. The foundation also has offices in Maryland and Virginia. “Pollution reduction is the goal. It’s like a budget or a diet. We want to lose weight, or to get down to this number by this time.”

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a private nonprofit since 1967 that focuses on advocacy, education, regulation and legislation, has 225,000 members, many donors, grantors and a corporate staff of 150 in three offices. Other than Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia, the bay’s watershed extends to Delaware, West Virginia, New York and the District of Columbia as well.

Collectively, the effort has been paying off, even if producers are mindful of their bottom lines. Studies reveal that Susquehanna River Basin producers have reduced nitrogen levels by 20 million pounds a year, and 400,000 pounds a year less phosphorus compared to levels in 1985. That’s more progress than sewage treatment plants and stormwater management systems made in the same period, and a feather in the hat for producers. “There’s been some progress, and agriculture in Pennsylvania deserves the most credit,” Garber says.

The problem and solution

Excess nitrogen and phosphorus in the bay, through a process called eutrophication, produce an abundance of single-celled algae. These ecocidal algae blooms block sunlight to submerged aquatic vegetation (SAVs) like bay grasses and lead to massive die-offs. When algae dies, the decomposition consumes a lot of oxygen, creating so-called dead zones that are the focus of the crackdown, along with the general improvement of water quality.

The effort began in the late 1970s and early ’80s, when the EPA began studying the bay. By 1983, the first Chesapeake Bay Agreement, an interstate commitment to improve the bay’s condition, was signed. In 1987 and 2000, other agreements followed. In 2010, the “new, more aggressive phase” was launched to remedy “inadequate past efforts,” Garber says.

In essence, Garber says the past three decades were voluntary efforts. Concerned parties became more accountable, but those efforts didn’t remove the bay from the Impaired Water List, nor did the bay meet the water quality standards under the federal Clean Water Act. In 1999, a suit brought by the American Canoe Association versus the state of Virginia initiated a more regulatory approach evident in Chesapeake 2000, which mandated TMDLs as a necessary means to remove the bay from the endangered list. “Ten years later,” Garber says, “we’re still not nearly far enough along. We want to look back at 2010 as a watershed year, a point of departure.”

The cleanup within the agricultural sector was previously estimated to cost $700 million, but with the new TMDL numbers, costs are expected to rise. By comparison, it’s expected to cost the state’s sewage treatment plants $1.2 billion to be in compliance. Garber says agricultural compliance may have a cheaper price tag, but the industry is the most difficult to evaluate and enforce.

“We’re calling on all states to do a better job of informing farmers of their legal obligations,” Garber says. “We want to inform them and provide them with technical and financial assistance to get the job done.”

A pheromone trap is used in the orchard to monitor for insects. This trap is labeled, “TABM” for Tufted Apple Budmoth.

Who’s doing what?

Central Pennsylvania is of particular interest. The Susquehanna River drains about half the state’s freshwater to the bay. “It’s definitely the big one,” Garber says. “If we don’t clean up the Susquehanna River, we’re never going to bring the bay back.”

There are 58,000 farms in Pennsylvania, but Garber says 40,000 of them are within the Susquehanna and Potomac watersheds. A Department of Environmental Protection report says that roughly 19,000 miles of Pennsylvania’s streams are impaired by pollution. Of that amount, 5,484 miles are impaired by pollution from agriculture.

Randy Ziegler, a grower in Fredericksburg, Pa., says in his mind, literally and figuratively, the Chesapeake starts on lands he farms. Most of Lebanon County, where he farms, is within the bay’s drainage basin or watershed. Ziegler is a mentor in a local, self-named, No-Till Sluggers group, a farmer-to-farmer advising program that believes no-till farming, among other benefits, helps control runoff and erosion, and promotes the retention of nitrogen and carbon in the ground through the use of cover crops, thus reducing the use of manure.

A little less than half of the 220 acres he farms are in no-till. He plants 70 acres of corn, 50 acres of soybean, 30 acres of small grains, 50 acres of alfalfa and the rest in grass hay. His cover crops are mostly rye and radishes that he does not harvest, but rather burns down with pesticide, then leaves as much on the surface as he can.

He applies manure twice a year at appropriate times, and never overapplies. He has a herd of 90 cows. Progressive and proactive, 12 years ago, his father built a 360,000-gallon concrete manure pit for containment. Ziegler also participates in a stream bank fence program that keeps his herd out of the farm’s waterways.

“The creeks are really coming back to what they used to be,” he says. “A lot of clean water is coming out of there. Some farmers are doing a whole lot, but you still see farms where cows are walking in the creeks. For some, no program will change their minds.”

The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. A gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pa., he writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th- century America, agrarian culture, land use and sports and recreation topics.