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.