UPPER MARLBORO – The precarious financial position of the region’s farmers, who are under pressure to sell their land to developers and often unable to afford environmentally friendly practices, threatens the health of the state’s waterways, according to a report released Tuesday by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
The study, the first of its kind by the foundation, used 12 indicators – including the number and size of farms, fertilizer efficiency, and soil erosion – to evaluate the health of farming in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania. The indicators were chosen after consultation with farmers, agricultural researchers and environmentalists.
William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the goal of the report is to promote “stability, profitability, and environmental sustainability” among farmers.
All but two indicators in the report were ranked “unhealthy” or “weak.” No indicator earned a “healthy” ranking.
Among the biggest problems facing the region’s farmers, according to the report, are a decline in the total acres of farmland, the shrinking percentage of consumers’ food spending that goes to farmers, and the accumulation of excess phosphorus in the soil.
Another area that draws concern is the distribution of federal farm payments, which the foundation says are not granted to Chesapeake Bay area farmers in the same proportion as they are given to farmers in other parts of the nation. Chesapeake farmers receive an average of 4 cents in federal agricultural funding for every dollar in production; the national average is 6 cents.
In giving the federal payment system a “weak” rating, the report also spelled out what it would take to improve the situation: More money to local farmers would raise the rating to “good,” but a “healthy” rating would only come when farm economics were strong enough to support farmers without ongoing federal crop subsidies.
The brightest point in the report, with the only indicator ranked “good,” was fertilizer efficiency. The foundation found that farmers are using less fertilizer per acre than they did in the past, a decline attributed to more widespread use of nutrient management planning since the 1970s.
A decline in soil erosion on cropland — an issue of serious concern for environmentalists and farmers — earned that indicator a “fair” ranking.
The farm study is part of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s broader effort to turn around what has often been a contentious relationship between environmental groups and farmers. Kim Coble, executive director of the foundation, said her group wants to “keep farmers farming.”
Earl “Buddy” Hance, president of the Maryland Farm Bureau, said it was a welcome shift. “Agriculture needs all the partners it can get,” he said.
Based on the findings in the report, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation called for additional government support for farmers, including the development of programs to protect farmland from development, investment in technologies to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, and increased state and federal funding for conservation programs.
Chesapeake Bay Foundation officials and Hance all highlighted the willingness of farmers to participate in conservation efforts, as long as they make economic sense. “If farmers have the money, they’ll do the right thing,” Hance said. The data for the report came from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Water Quality Program and the Environmental Protection Agency.