Bay Journal

Inflexible regulations giving ‘green’ a black eye

  • By Tom Horton on March 06, 2014
  • Comments are closed for this article.
Ted Wycall; his wife; Julie; and 14-month daughter inspect the winter greens in a hoop house at his Greenbranch Organic Farm on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.  (Dave Harp) Ted Wycall attends to winter greens in one of his hoop houses. He would like to expand his operations but has been stymied by rules that make it difficult for even sustainable farms to grow.  (Dave Harp)

I get so tired of the almighty dollar dominating our society that I sometimes forget: While the sustainable world we environmentalists seek is about so much more, economic sustainability is crucial.

Which brings me to farmer Ted Wycall, of Greenbranch Organic Farm on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Ted’s delicious food is a beacon of hope in a landscape of industrial farming with its impacts on Bay water quality.

His free-range chickens, grass-fed beef, organic veggies, and pork from hogs that root acorns in his woods are a path we greenies favor for the planet—a local economy that is good for the soil, good for our health.

His little farm store hums with customers glad to pay more than supermarket price for the food, for the Earth. Ted had planned to expand, in this, his seventh year of farming the land he inherited from his grandfather.

But recently, with frustration and some bitterness, he said he is close to moving to Montana, where he went to college, where “there are almost no rules.”

Rules have hammered farmer Ted recently, thwarting his expansion, locking him in to a future, as he sees it, where the living he’s barely making is “all I’ll ever have.”

Ironically, the rules are those we environmentalists labored to pass to restore the Chesapeake Bay: requiring cleaner septic tanks, less stormwater runoff and a halt to the buildup of phosphorus in farm fields.

Ted’s plan was to increase sales and production to boost his income—“about what a (Wicomico) county teacher makes,” enough to live on, but not to retire, or pay the latest $8,000 tractor repair. He would have moved his 54-foot-square market onto 60 acres that link his farm to a busy road, where more customers would stop.

But highway officials said he’d have to spend $50,000 for a “deceleration lane” for his roadside market, never mind that nearby crossroads don’t have any.

He could avoid that by running an access drive off a side road; but the impervious surface of that driveway, plus that of his market building, would entail stormwater pollution expenditures of more than $20,000, plus weekly paperwork he has no time for.

He’d actually be removing more impervious surface (old farm buildings) than he’d create; but because those buildings predate stormwater regulations, he’d get no credit for that, the Maryland Department of the Environment confirmed.

A state-of-the-art septic tank to handle wastes would be $15,000 or more. They can be built for much less, but regulations require such systems be certified. This has winnowed the field to a few outfits that provide only top-of-the-line units.

Ted’s requests to substitute a waterless, composting toilet, used extensively by groups like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and National Park Service, were rejected by the county.

So was his argument that new greenhouses he needs to expand on his current farm be exempted from stormwater rules: “You are a developer,” said a dismissive e-mail from a county official.

He also fears being stymied from spreading the composted leaves from his woods to build his soil’s organic content by proposed rules limiting phosphorus in farm soils. His soils test high in phosphorus (though not high enough to feed his veggies), a legacy of commercial chicken farming by his grandfather.

“I don’t think anyone should have the right to pollute, because that violates other rights like the right to clean water,” Ted said.

“But my land is flat and so well-drained that there’s no standing water, let alone runoff even after 6– to 8-inch rains. Regulations should target pollution effectively, not crush people like me.”

I’m not about to endorse making Ted a poster child for trashing these rules. I support every one of them.

But his shaky economic situation, all too common among sustainable farmers, should give us pause. If we want what Ted offers, it will take more than shopping green at Greenbranch Farm.

It will mean working through unintended consequences of our regulations; it will mean engaging more actively with supporting the systems of food production we say we want, and ending subsidies to those we don’t.

It’s an overdue reassessment that goes beyond the greening of agriculture, to green energy, green transportation and green housing, said journalist Heather Rogers in her provocative and highly recommended book, “Green Gone Wrong.”

The sustainability solutions we’re embracing, consuming “green” products, often ignore the more difficult tasks of reforming a fundamentally unsustainable economy that dwarfs our good intentions.

“No matter how much we as consumers want local, ecologically responsible food, the people who make it may well go extinct,” she concludes.

As for Ted, he will soon have to sell his new land, which ironically could become a seven-unit housing development under Wicomico’s zoning that is allegedly designed to protect farming.

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About Tom Horton

Tom Horton has written about Chesapeake Bay for more than 40 years, including eight books. He lives in Salisbury, where he is also a professor of Environmental Studies at Salisbury University.

Read more articles by Tom Horton


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Craig Highfield, Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay on March 19, 2014:

This seems to be an unfortunate situation for this small farm. I appreciate the holistic approach Mr. Wycall seems to be pursuing in sustaining his farm economically and environmentally. As woodlands are often a forgotten resource on farms in this region, I must point out that the practices of allowing hogs to root for acorns in the woods and removing leaf litter can be detrimental to the sustainability of forest health. These practices can compact the woods porous soils, set back tree regeneration, disrupt nutrient cycling and create ideal conditions for invasive plants to thrive. Incorporating woodlots into farm operations can surely help to diversify and sustain farm income if done correctly. Attaining a Forest Stewardship Plan for your woods written by a licensed forester will help farmers balance their goals with the forest's needs.

Pete on March 20, 2014:

We'll come visit you guys in Montana!

Kathleen Oakley Durkee on March 20, 2014:

Disclaimer: although I have lived in Monkton, northern Baltimore County, for 42 yrs., I am "the farmer's daughter" my husband married 50 yrs. ago. As the proud daughter of Bobbi and Willard Oakley, I was fortunate to experience first hand the trials, tribulations, and innovative successes of agriculture in Wicomico County. As president of the Md. Farm Bureau my father attempted to balance the basic necessities of producing lucrative crops while recognizing the pitfalls of over fertilizing and insecticide use. Today science has brought awareness of how precious our lands are-on both sides of the bay. It is hoped that common sense and co-operation among the farmers and environmentalists will allow Mr. Wycall to continue perusing the wonderful, demanding, rewarding world of agriculture on our Eeastern Shore.

Mary on March 21, 2014:

"hogs rooting for acorns in the woods", CH, you missed the pint of the article.

Tim Fields on March 21, 2014:

Really interesting article. I think that county politicians should reconsider the ruling on this farm and the project. Ted has taken many efforts to run a clean and responsible farming business. I think more efforts to educate the Wicomico County Council on what is happening here on the shore regarding organic farming is necessary.

Marc Kilmer on April 17, 2014:

As someone running for Wicomico County Council, I am appalled to read about the actions of our local government. You hear a lot from the executive's office about the need to be pro-business and pro-farmer, but maybe that message isn't getting down to the rest of the bureaucracy. Or maybe our country laws and regulations need changed. As this article explains, farmers in Maryland have a tough enough time with state laws and regulations. Our county government should not be throwing up roadblocks to farmers, organic or otherwise, who are looking to expand.

Roy Calvin on April 19, 2014:

why does the Chesapeake Bay Foundation even have paid jobs?--and been granted un-elected authority?-- they are just like MADD who have inserted themselves into the Judicial Process with a total over-zealousness that is their driving force

Annie on April 19, 2014:

Craig wins the award for a typical short sighted small minded response. Sad to realize that is all he got out of the article. Thank you for providing me even more reason to not like your organization and their bogus platform.

Molly Hilligoss on April 23, 2014:

The community will lose if Ted Wycall leaves Wicomico County. I have been a CSA member of his farm for 3 years now. So have about 250 other families. The state and county could provide an exemption for some of these rules that as Tom Horton states - had 'unintended consequences.' I, for one, would gladly go to any and all county meetings to help facilitate exemption for small family farms that provide CSA produce, farm stand and farmers market food. Where is the common sense approach to regulation? Lastly, thank you Tom for your outstanding coverage on this topic. It would be nice if The Daily Times would reprint your piece - maybe then, County Officials would notice.

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