Inspectors find most PA farms, while not all in compliance, are trying
Ramped-up visits part of reboot to meet state’s Bay cleanup goals
On the day of the inspection of the 350 acres he farms, Jay M. Diller drove his skid loader from the barn to meet staff from the district conservation office. The farmer pulled out large files from his desk and got ready.
“Nobody likes inspections,” said Diller, as he produced plans and other farm records the inspectors wanted to see. “I don’t even like state inspections on my car; they always find something wrong.”
Diller was joking, but he’s very serious about water quality. “I’m doing everything I can to keep manure out of the creek,” he said.
Pennsylvania farmers like Diller are finding themselves under increased scrutiny as the state and many county conservation districts have ramped up their efforts to check whether farms have required manure management and sediment control plans. The inspections are part of the state’s Chesapeake Bay “reboot” strategy announced last year that was aimed at getting its Bay cleanup efforts on track.
The Keystone State is the largest contributor of water-fouling nitrogen to the Bay, but it has fallen far behind in its nutrient control efforts. Pennsylvania needs to reduce the amount of nitrogen reaching the Bay by 34 million pounds by 2025 — almost 70 percent of the total reductions needed from the entire watershed.
Lack of progress could mean further action from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency which, in the past, has temporarily withheld funds from the state because of its shortfalls.
Most of the nitrogen reaching the Bay from Pennsylvania originates on the more than 33,000 farms in its portion of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. But an EPA review of the state’s programs found that only 2 percent of those farms were inspected annually — a rate that would take it half a century to comply with regulations required since the 1970s.
In its reboot strategy, the state pledged, among other things, to inspect 10 percent of those farms annually.
To do that, it has increased inspections by state Department of Environmental Protection staff and enlisted help from the staff of more than two dozen county conservation districts — county-based entities that support landowners in managing land and water resources.
Through its first quarter, the DEP reported that 500 farms had been checked, but officials vowed to pick up the pace.
“I think it’s doable even though we started late,” said Veronica Kasi, program manager of the DEP’s Chesapeake Bay Office. “We’re going to meet 10 percent, because that’s what we said we would do. And each year we’re going to have a better understanding of how many farms we have in the watershed.”
So far, the inspections are showing somewhat better compliance than state officials originally thought. When the reboot plan was announced in early 2016, they cited a DEP review that suggested as many as 70 percent of farms didn’t have state-mandated plans to curb pollution.
But through the first three months of inspections, the DEP said that 64 percent of the farmers required to have a manure management plan did have one, as did 60 percent of the farmers required to have an agricultural erosion and sedimentation control plan. “The farmers have been very cooperative with this new inspection program,” said Deborah Klenotic, a DEP spokeswoman.
Being out of compliance at this point means that a farm’s plans are either missing or no longer valid. Part of the problem, conservation district staff say, is that even if farmers are good stewards, many aren’t good file clerks when it comes to preparing and maintaining plans.
Diller milks about 180 cows on his Cumberland County farm and raises young hens to be sold to egg operations. He also grows crops: hay, soybean and corn. In addition, he leases several parcels of land in various townships in Cumberland County.
Diller joked a bit during his two-hour inspection but when discussing farm management, the conversation was one of scientific precision. An avid reader of agricultural publications, Diller is well-versed in how to reduce soil erosion and responsibly manage manure. He said he practices no-till cropping methods and plants winter cover for those reasons — and because they make good business sense.
“The last thing I like to see is brown water crossing the road,” Diller said. “I think about water quality, and I like to keep my soil on the farm.”
Still, Diller’s agricultural erosion and sedimentation plan was out-of-date. But his manure management plan was current.
The district gives farmers 90 days to rectify any issues with their plans and offers technical and financial assistance to get plans up-to-date. The problem will cost him about $3,600 to fix, and Diller may need an extension of the 90-day grace period; the wait to get a consultant to write or update a plan can be months because of increased demand by farmers who know they are going to be inspected soon, or whose plans are insufficient.
“I find the paperwork part of all this frustrating,” Diller said. “But if this is what it’s going to take to improve, I say, let’s do this. I’d rather do it than be in violation. I don’t want to be in violation. Farmers get enough bad publicity.”
All farms, large and small, are regulated to some degree. Manure management plans are required for those that generate or use manure. Agricultural erosion and sedimentation control plans are required for farms that plow (or no-till) at least 5,000 square feet or have an Animal Concentration Area such as a barnyard or exercise lot of at least 5,000 square feet.
While the purpose of each plan is simple — to control runoff in areas where manure and animals are kept — a lot of detail is required to ensure proper management.
Out-of-date plan aside, Diller is a model farmer, said Brady Seeley, Chesapeake Bay technician for Cumberland County. But he said those farmers who don’t follow the rules don’t know what they’re doing wrong.
Often, the problem is a failure to record practices that the farmer is already doing, Seeley said, and district staff try to help get that in order, when they can. Of 40 inspections conducted so far in Cumberland County, he said, “about 32 were out of compliance but we were able to get 13 into compliance immediately.”
District staff have no authority — or desire — to enforce the rules that they are checking. If they can’t readily resolve a problem, they report it to the DEP, which can issue a notice of violation or a fine to farmers who refuse to comply.
So far, the district has not referred any farms to the DEP for enforcement, said Carl Goshorn, the Cumberland district manager. He said that farmers have multiple chances to comply with the regulations. “If we turn a farmer over to DEP for enforcement action, they just didn’t want to work with [the] government,” Goshorn said.
District staff members acknowledge that some farmers resent what they perceive is being told how to farm.
“When Brady talks to farmers,” Goshorn said, explaining how his technicians work, “he tells them it’s just a cost to do business. He’ll bring up water quality, especially if there’s a stream going through the farm. ‘Do you remember when you used to fish in that stream?’ And he’ll often say, ‘yeah, I wish I could see my kids doing that.’”
But word of pending inspections is leading farmers to take pre-emptive action, Goshorn said. Many are coming to the district for help. It’s also conducted three manure management workshops this year to help farmers write their own plans or to offer technical assistance in getting manure management plans.
District staff can’t meet the demand to help write the plans, so its board of directors put aside enough funding in 2017 to offer a 50 percent cost share for plans, up to $1,000 per farmer.
“A lot of folks are asking for it (inspections),” Goshorn said. “They heard of all the new attention, and they want to get into compliance, and some are looking for money. They know it’s not going to be this easy as time goes on.”
For now, inspections primarily focus on whether farmers have required plans that are up-to date and available for each parcel of land farmed — not necessarily that the plans are being strictly followed.
“As a result of this initiative, Pennsylvania has substantially increased their presence in the agricultural community to ensure that farmers have the state-required plans,” said David Sternberg, a spokesman for EPA's Region 3.
The EPA anticipates that the state will be adding verification of practices installed on farms in the near future, Sternberg said, as well as improving programing, funding and tracking of key practices.
District staff say that encouraging good stewardship has always been a large part of their job, and that will increase along with the inspections.
“We may be only checking for an ag E&S (agricultural erosion and sedimentation plan) and a manure management plan to make sure it’s on schedule, but we also advocate and promote implementation,” said Christopher Thompson, Lancaster County Conservation District manager.
Overall, inspections in Lancaster have gone well, Thompson said, adding that part of the farm visits are educational. “We hear what they have to say, but remind them this is not a requirement just for 2016, this is a decades-old requirement.”
Lancaster County is the heart of Pennsylvania agriculture, with about 5,000 farms, compared with Cumberland’s 500. Technicians there have completed inspections on 200 farms and found that about 50 percent either didn’t have plans or had incomplete plans, said Kevin Seibert, who is in charge of agricultural compliance and oversees two technicians.
Like the Cumberland district, he said farmers are using the inspections to learn what they need to do to comply.
“If they don’t have one or the other plan, we give them 90 days to submit a plan to the district. If they don’t come through, we grant extra time,” Seibert said. “If they show some effort, we don’t report them.”
He said they have had to send fewer than 10 farmers to the DEP for enforcement.
Even counties that rejected state funding to carry out inspections say the ramped-up attention is driving up requests for help with writing plans.
York County Conservation District is one of eight in the state that opted out of doing inspections. But their usual waiting list for technical assistance of 150 farmers remains consistent.
“I think folks have taken notice,” said Mark Kimmel, district manager for York. “We’re doing the best we can with the resources we have.”
- Category: Pollution
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