An initial assessment of future projects puts Frederick County farms 100,000 pounds of nitrogen beyond its goal to help restore the Chesapeake Bay by 2025.
This is a positive result for the agriculture community, which has carried the early burden of reducing nutrients and sediment in local waterways and eventually the bay. Using conservative estimates, local farms should be able to reach, and go slightly beyond, their portion of the state’s overall nutrient reduction goal.
“We have a very good idea of what Maryland agriculture needs to do,” said Jason Keppler, program manager for watershed implementation at the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
Producers, foresters, soil conservation managers, planners, seed and fertilizer representatives and members of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation gathered to specifically look at what practices could reasonably be installed in Frederick County between 2018 and 2025 to meet nitrogen and phosphorus goals for the bay.
The group proposed making small adjustments across multiple categories and agricultural industries to meet the county’s requisite reductions.
Some projects were easy to predict, such as two stream restorations already underway at the Catoctin and Frederick Soil Conservation District Office, which should bump the county up from nearly 400 feet to an estimated 1,500 feet of treated area, said District Manager Denny Remsburg.
The group could also almost guarantee that 100 percent of dairy farms in the county would have operational waste management systems, instead of the 70 percent currently reflected in the model.
Other areas were harder to predict.
Converting agricultural land to pasture and open space were among the list “best management practices” that the county could complete for nutrient reduction credit. Some of the people present, however, were displeased to see solar arrays included in the “open” land retirement category and to see it carry a higher nitrogen reduction credit — 18.1 pounds — than pasture, at 16.3 pounds.
The County Council voted to limited the number of contiguous acres large solar arrays could be constructed on in May 2017. But the county is still involved in two Maryland Public Service Commission cases to determine if two solar arrays beyond the council’s defined scope should be allowed to be built near the historic LeGore Bridge and outside Walkersville on agricultural land.
Another hard decision was how many more acres of stream forest buffers the county wanted to commit to on agricultural land.
Currently, there are 2,425 acres of forest buffers in Frederick County on agricultural land, according to the Maryland Department of Agriculture. In the past two years, however, riparian buffers have become a sore spot among farmers as the Monocacy Scenic River Management Plan has been publicly reviewed and revised.
“It has become a very important issue here in Frederick and Carroll counties with suggestions of riparian buffers,” Sam Roop, a local farmer and former vice chairman of the board that wrote the plan, said at the meeting. “... If you were able to make that some kind of incentive of the Monocacy River landowners, they might see the benefit.”
Forest buffers have been characterized as a “government land grab” by some of the landowners outspoken against the plan.
But forest buffers are among the top ways to reduce nitrogen loads, according to a table of best management practices handed out at the meeting. Forest buffers with stream-side exclusion fencing is the top nitrogen reduction technique listed and removes 209.6 pounds of nitrogen per acre.
Other buffers also reduce nitrogen, including:
- 201.7 pounds from grass buffers with stream-side exclusion fencing.
- 60.4 pounds from generic forest buffers.
- 58.9 pounds from narrow forest buffers with exclusion fencing.
- 56.6 pounds from narrow grass buffers with exclusion fencing.
Rob Schnabel, a watershed restoration scientist and Chesapeake streams manager for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, implored the group to consider committing a higher number of acres to forest buffers. An analysis by the foundation found 1,400 unbuffered acres in Frederick County on agricultural land, which would qualify for the planting of a 35-foot forest buffer.
In all, the group agreed to go up from 2,425 acres to 3,000 possible areas of agricultural forest buffers, an increase of 575 acres.
For beef cattle farmers Zene and Audrey Wolfe, it was important to be in the room while decisions that would affect their farm were made. They have installed many best management practices in their decades on the farm, but there seemed to always be added rules.
“It’s never-ending. They always want more,” Audrey Wolfe said before the presentation began.
After the group reviewed nearly 35 individual best management practices, the county was able to get approximately 100,000 pounds of nitrogen and 10,000 pounds of phosphorus beyond the goals set for the county’s agricultural sector.
Agriculture will not be alone in getting Maryland to 2025, Keppler said. The agriculture plans will be joined by plans for wastewater treatment plants, urban stormwater and septic loads in the state’s master plan for improving the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
A long road
A series of agreements have governed how much sediment and nutrients were allowed to enter the bay.
In 1985, an estimated 28.3 million pounds of nitrogen was delivered to the bay from Maryland agriculture. By 2009, the year before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a seven-jurisdiction agreement to reduce pollution known as the Total Maximum Daily Load, the state’s farms had already reduced their nitrogen load to approximately 19.8 million pounds.
While the total nitrogen reaching the bay from agriculture continued to go down to the midpoint of the cleanup in 2017, the agriculture industry missed its goal of 17 million pounds by half a million pounds last year.
Statewide by 2025, agriculture needs to reduce approximately 2.4 million pounds of nitrogen across crop, livestock and hay production. Each county will be responsible for a slice of the pie — though not equally.
“We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us in a short period of time,” Keppler said.
At the conclusion of the meeting, University of Maryland Extension agent Matt Morris asked what was the end goal of the plans. Was it to eventually reach zero?
All sources — be it a wastewater treatment plant, corn crop or wild animal — release some amount of nutrients, Keppler responded. The goal is rather to reach and maintain a certain level of control and hold upstream partners accountable for their reductions as well.
“We won’t be at zero,” Keppler said.