The Monocacy River’s muddy, brown water after every rainfall is a visual reminder of the work left to do to reduce polluted runoff in Frederick County and the surrounding region.
It’s a sign that city, county and state officials need to do more to reduce runoff generated mostly from the farm fields that stretch across the landscape.
The Frederick News-Post in the recent editorial “New rules are for the greater good” highlighted the challenge of making piecemeal environmental improvements to combat pollution in the face of increasing global climate change. However, that challenge should not lead to inaction.
There are ways for residents in Frederick County, particularly farmers, to make lasting improvements to the regional environment that will improve Chesapeake Bay water quality and stem climate change.
More than 50 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorous generated in Frederick County comes from agriculture, primarily when rain washes the pollutants from fields. Row crops such as corn and soybeans, which are mainly grown to feed cattle and poultry, are culprits in the runoff issue. These row crop fields are bare during planting and harvest making them susceptible to erosion during rain storms, which have become more frequent and intense due to climate change.
As we lose our topsoil to erosion the ability for the land to store water decreases, resulting in more flooding. Maryland’s watershed implementation plan calls for planting more annual cover crops as the solution and budgets $25 million dollars every year to subsidize the work. But this cover is often planted too late in the fall and winter months to provide sufficient protection from erosion.
To more adequately address the issue, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation promotes rotational grazing — converting these row crop fields to permanent pasture—and provides grazing mentors for farmers to help make the transition. Grass pastures provide permanent cover to protect our soils from erosion while sequestering carbon and increasing the amount of water the soil can hold.
We have worked with numerous farmers throughout Frederick County to help them transition to rotational grazing. We are currently working with Andrew and Mary Kathryn Barnet of Open Book Farm in Middletown. When they purchased the farm a few years ago it was all row crops. By the end of 2019 the 170-acre farm will be completely converted to pasture for their cows, chickens and hogs to graze on a rotational basis. The animals graze on grass fields, munching down clover, orchardgrass and a “salad bar” of numerous other species while also naturally fertilizing the fields with manure. When they trim the grasses to four to six inches, the animals are rotated to another field that has been given time to grow back.
CBF has taken soil samples before and after the row crop fields were transformed to pasture and determined soil organic matter increased. This is key — USDA scientists say for every 1 percent increase in organic matter, an acre of soil can “hold” an additional 25,000 gallons of water.
At one time, it appeared Maryland officials understood the importance of grass pastures. The second phase of Maryland’s watershed implementation plan called for transforming 15,000 acres of row crops into permanent pasture by 2025. That emphasis has since waned. The plan’s third phase draft, which was released for public comment in April, calls for just 2,500 acres.
The state should also consider altering the economic incentives for permanent pasture. Through the Maryland Agricultural Cost Share (MACS) program, Open Book Farm was offered less funding per acre to convert corn fields to permanent pasture than corn farmers receive to plant annual cover crops.
To truly make progress in the face of climate change, we can’t continue to rely on a system of subsidized cover crops when long-term, more effective solutions have been identified. More permanent pasture coupled with other permanent practices such as forest buffers along streams and green infrastructure to filter stormwater in cities and suburban areas will help prevent runoff from reaching the Monocacy River and other Chesapeake Bay tributaries. Yes, climate change is a global issue, but there are local solutions.
Rob Schnabel works for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation Maryland as a restoration biologist.