Farmers are conservationists, too!

Yup. Farmers care, just as much as we do.

I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the Chesapeake Watershed Forum that was held at the National Conservation Training Center in West Virginia. The conference was created to connect the environmental community and discuss, simply, how to better take care of the Chesapeake Bay and our local waterways. A local nonprofit and Choose Clean Water member, Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, hosted the event and man, did it live up to all my expectations.

As a student majoring in Journalism and New Media with a deep-rooted passion for conservation and the environment, this weekend opened my eyes to just how pervasive the conversation around restoration is throughout the community; specifically, on agriculture.

I sat in on many sessions, from Implicit Bias and Gender in Conservation to Self Care in Trying Times, but nothing stuck out to me more than the workshop session titled, "Advancing Soil Health for Productive Agriculture and Clean Water," and let me tell you, it was nothing short of informative and entertaining.

For one, I learned the four, simple and essential principles to healthy soil.

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  1. Minimize Disturbances - No tilling!

  2. Maximize Soil Cover - Cover crops. Keep the soil covered as much as possible.

  3. Maximize biodiversity - Use crop rotation and a diverse mixture of seeds.

  4. Maximize continuous living roots - Keep the plants growing (carbon) for the microbial network.

The most important speaker was Leroy Bupp — a long-time experienced farmer, who advocates throughout his hometown in Pennsylvania for environmentally-friendly farming methods, like no till, reducing fertilizer, and cover crops. “I've been a farmer for 50 plus years, but have been a conservationist all my life," Leroy said. As someone who is just learning about how different industries impact our waterways, it was interesting to hear from farmers about how they can positively impact sustainability and are environmentally conscious. 

I'm a visual learner. So what I appreciated most, was the fact that he debunked the belief that tillage "loosens up the soil," by showing us a visual demonstration featuring 2 tennis balls: One covered in soil from his farm that has not been tilled since 1971, and another ball covered with dirt from his neighbor's farm that still uses tillage (I use the word dirt and soil loosely, because they are not interchangeable).

                                    Here are the results. The picture speaks for itself.

 Ball with tilled soil (left jar) Ball with unconventional methods (right jar)

Ball with tilled soil (left jar) Ball with unconventional methods (right jar)

I'll break it down for you as non-sciency as I can (I'm a mass communications major, so I can understand the struggle to grasp certain scientific concepts).

Tilled soil turns into unhealthy dirt. The clay particles become separated, it oxidizes and compacts itself. When this happens, the dirt will not allow water to percolate through it. Imagine water from the left jar after a rainstorm flowing from a farm that still uses traditional tilling methods. You getting what I'm throwing?

Tillage wreaks havoc among underground habitats, too. Tillage kills over 50% of night crawler worms, 80% of cocoon eggs and 100% of worm and root channels that are needed to absorb water. These critters have a biological responsibility, too. They are part of a healthy soil system.

Non-tilled soil, as shown above, percolates right on through the pores of healthy soil. Thus, the result is translucent water. Let me also note that the jar on the right of the picture is an actual sample from the 13 inches of rain that had dumped onto Leroy's farm from July. He is a walking testimony to how the lack of tillage is the road to clean water.

How are Leroy and other farmers working to reduce agricultural runoff and promote soil health? 

  1. Cover crops - these are plants that are planted after crops have been harvested. They protect the soil for future cash crops, suppress weeds, reduce insect pests and diseases, absorb excess fertilizer, feed the microbes in the soil, enrich the soil with organic matter (we have lost over the last 100 years about 1/2 of our organic matter), improves infiltration and provides a habitat for beneficial insects. Healthy soil systems mean being able to lay off the fertilizer that the pollute water.

  2. Forrest buffers - grasses, trees, plants and shrubs that are planted along the ridges of farm fields and along waterways that help reduce the amount of pollutants flowing from land into rivers and streams. They absorb the polluted runoff and provide habitat for wildlife.

  3. Streamline fencing - keeps the cows, E. coli and chicken waste out of the water.

Unfortunately, these projects can be very expensive, and are hard to start without securing funding from a state or federal fund. Many farmers want to do the right thing for the environment, but do not possess the tools to make it happen. While some are just stuck in their ways. This is why it is imperative that programs be created to help provide funds for farmers to begin these best management practices (BMPs) and for continued maintenance.

I know you're thinking, "Taylor, who cares about farming? How does it in any shape or form affect me?" Well, I thought you'd never ask.

Did you know that agriculture is the single largest source of nutrient and sediment pollution entering our streams and rivers? Nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment are a big and scary no-no when it comes to water quality.

When we have huge rain storms, sort of like the record breaking ones we just had over the Summer, the rain carries with it fertilizer, manure and herbicides, from farms and garbage from urban development into our local waterways. This is detrimental to aquatic life, our drinking water and causes soil erosion (healthy, stable soil means yummy food for us). The excess of nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, that enter these waterways power the growth of nasty algae blooms that block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses. It then robs the water of oxygen that plants and animals are dependent on to survive. So you see, the soil affects our water, which also affects human health.

With all that being said — It’s just nice knowing that we have progressive and innovative farmers who care about land and water conservation as well as keeping our bellies full. We must understand the importance of protecting what nature takes so long to create. I hope that this information and concern for our planet will pass down with each farming generation to come. When you drive past a farm, brightly colored green, with those noticeable BMPs, give them mental props for their commitment to healthy farm practices and clean water.

Taylor Montford is the communications intern for the Choose Clean Water Coalition.