It is time for specifics about the Chesapeake Clean Water and Ecosystem Restoration Act (S.1816 and H.R. 3852). Farmers want to know whether it will be possible and profitable to farm in the Bay region in the coming decades. They deserve answers.
In early February, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation published an open letter to the agricultural community in many newspapers in the region. In this letter, we thanked farmers for their work to date in the Bay cleanup effort and asked for an open dialogue on how best to achieve the mutual goals of clean water and a strong agricultural economy. Discussions between conservation and agricultural interests have recently "come off the track," and we have to get this train back on track and moving forward.
The CBF supports the Chesapeake Clean Water and Ecosystem Restoration Act, dubbed the Chesapeake Clean Water Act, because it charts a solid path forward. It holds government accountable for clean water while authorizing resources to help farmers implement the additional measures that will be needed.
Some from the agricultural community, though, have raised serious objections and suggested, among other things, that the legislation will set the bar too high and drive farmers out of business.
We disagree. In fact, the CBF would never support legislation establishing standards that were unachievable by most farmers in the watershed. If we lose farms to development-a likely scenario based on recent history-we not only lose local food production and local jobs, we also lose open space so critical to clean water. The charge that the Chesapeake Clean Water Act will drive farmers out of business is one we take seriously.
But it is a false charge.
The legislation does not require new federal standards; it does require states to ensure that everyone-cities, suburbs, homeowners and farms-does their fair share.
The onus, then, is on the states to set their own bars for compliance. Appropriately, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and the other Bay states each have their own approach on agriculture, but all emphasize tried-and-true conservation measures.
The specific practices will differ from farm to farm, reflecting the diverse nature of farming. Some farms, like grass-based grazing operations with low animal stocking rates, may have an easier time with compliance. But all farms will need to implement conservation plans to prevent soil erosion. No-till and cover crops will be the method of choice for many.
All farms will need to plan for and apply manure and fertilizer at rates protective of water quality. Livestock will need to be housed and grazed more carefully. Stream bank fencing is a must. Muddy, unmanaged barnyards and exercise lots-bad for cows and streams alike-must be eliminated. This is one area where government help is perhaps needed most, given the high cost of improved livestock facilities.
These are the "baseline" requirements that all farms will have to meet. Because basic conservation is not always enough to meet water quality standards, additional efforts, like forest buffers and alternative manure treatments, may be needed to get a farmer over the finish line.
The Chesapeake Clean Water Act will establish an interstate nutrient trading program that may provide significant revenue opportunities for Bay state farmers. This will follow on the 2008 federal Farm Bill, which bolstered incentive programs like the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program to help farmers take these extra steps.
Finally, farmers need to know that once they've reached these clearly articulated milestones, they will be safe from new demands tomorrow.
The Chesapeake Clean Water Act will not drive farmers out of business. Rather, it will create the necessary framework to hold states accountable to establish and enforce reasonable expectations and support for farms and suburbs alike.
Just as important, this legislation is the only vehicle currently proposed to establish robust resources to get the job done.
If there are other proposals that can do the same, we have not heard them. But we are ready and willing to listen.