NRCS and the Chesapeake Bay Watershed
Maryland Farmers Help Save the Bay
The Chesapeake Bay Watershed, the largest estuary in North America, covers 64,000 square miles and includes over 150 rivers and streams that drain into the Bay. More than 300 species of fish, shellfish and crab species and a wide array of other wildlife call the Bay home.
While the health of the Chesapeake Bay has improved since the 1970s, excess nutrients and sediment continue to adversely affect water quality in the Bay and its tributaries.
Nearly all of Maryland (minus parts of Garrett and Worcester Counties) lies within the watershed. Approximately 28 percent of Maryland’s land is in agriculture, with over 12,000 farms in operation. A thriving and sustainable agricultural sector is critical to restoring the Chesapeake.
NRCS field offices in all 23 Maryland counties provide technical and financial assistance to landowners. These landowners implement conservation practices that help improve the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Below is just one example of the many success stories of farmers whose practices are helping to save the Bay.
Chesapeake Bay Family Brings Land Back to Life
At Panora Acres in Carroll County Maryland, the Sellers family had 300 head of dairy cattle eroding the stream banks and increasing nutrient concentrations in runoff. Through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, the family installed stream crossings to allow safe passage and avoid erosion and nutrients in the stream. They fenced their cattle out of 2 1/2 miles of the stream and planted buffers to stabilize the banks.
Panora Acres is a family dairy farm in Carroll County, Maryland. Established in the 1860s, the farm has transformed over the years into a conservation model. Panora’s 1500 acres lie within the Gunpowder Patapsco Watershed, an area that feeds both the Chesapeake Bay and the Pretty Boy and Liberty reservoirs, both major components of the Baltimore City water system.
The current generation of Panora Acres farm operators includes brothers Paul and Norman Sellers. The brothers work with the Carroll County Soil Conservation District and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to ensure the water leaving their farm is as clean as possible. A conservation plan outlines the resource concerns on their farm, effects on the environment that often result from the day-to-day management of dairies. The plan also details the best management practices that the Sellers can implement to improve water quality, erosion, and other resource concerns. Farm Bill programs make these practices economically viable and the solutions often help improve the farm’s bottom line.
To keep excess nutrients and sediment from the small stream on the property, 14 acres of grass buffers were planted along the banks where the cattle once grazed. The Sellers erected stream crossings to keep other pastures accessible to the 600-head herd and prevent the stream bank from eroding as the cattle move across. Three bridges provide the cattle safe passage while protecting the native brook trout and bog turtle habitats.
While 14 acres may seem like a lot of pasture to give up, Norman Sellers sees it as a standard part of his operating procedure. “We do what we can here. We’re a business, so we weigh the cost-benefit before implementing a conservation practice,” Norman said. “I find that as long as there’s clean water coming out, it’s worth it.”
With help from NRCS’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the Sellers recently built an agriculture chemical mixing and storage facility. The large shed has a concrete floor with a lip around the side, so if spills occur while mixing or loading the sprayer, they are easy to clean up and will not leach into the ground. Norman finds an added benefit to the facility is the security it provides, as he is now able to lock up his expensive chemicals when he’s not on the farm.
Panora also has a comprehensive system for handling the cattle’s waste, built with help from EQIP. Two manure storage pits hold waste and prevent unnecessary fertilizer from being applied on the fields.
“The second pit provides enough storage so we don’t have to spread manure in the winter,” Norman said. “We really only apply when the soil and crops need nutrients.”
The system also includes a concrete walkway around the feeding barn, an area that is heavily traveled by the cattle and potentially a muddy mess before it was protected. The concrete prevents erosion as well as providing an impenetrable surface for manure that is easy to clean. A small drain next to the calving barn on the farm leads to a pipe that carries manure to the storage pits, preventing the need for trucks to move the manure that can potentially be spilled and carried into the waterways.
“This system is a very effective method for improving water quality on dairy farms,” says Carroll District Conservationist Eric Hines. “The Sellers are a great example of family farmers making the environmental improvements on their farm that are necessary for the next generation’s success.”
The Sellers make regular stops in the Carroll field office, ensuring that as their operation grows, their conservation plan will transform with it. Norman says the technical and financial help he’s received from NRCS has been a key to Panora Acres’ success.
“We appreciate the help from NRCS,” said Norman. “It seems like a new regulation comes down every day, and NRCS often offers a solution. We couldn’t do it without them. ”