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#Fridaysonthefarm: Partnership Benefits Chesapeake Bay and Producers

#Fridaysonthefarm: Partnership Benefits Chesapeake Bay and Producer Web HeaderStory by NRCS Delaware, Maryland and Virginia; photos by NRCS and University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science

Each Friday, meet farmers, producers and landowners through our #Fridaysonthefarm stories. Visit local farms, ranches, forests and resource areas where NRCS and partners help people help the land.  CLICK HERE to view all #Fridaysonthefarmstories.


In this #Fridaysonthefarm feature, NRCS explores the beautiful Chesapeake Bay and meets producers and partners in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia who are implementing voluntary on-farm conservation practices that improve water quality, enhance wildlife habitat and strengthen the economic bottom lines for working lands.

#Fridaysonthefarm: Partnership Benefits Chesapeake Bay and Producer Web Map

 

Agricultural Lands - Key to Healthy Bay

More than 83,000 farms make up a $10 billion agricultural industry in the Chesapeake Bay - the largest estuary in North America. As daily stewards of the land, a growing number of those farmers and forest landowners are implementing conservation practices that reduce nutrient and sediment runoff and, at the same time, make working lands more efficient and productive.

But when it comes to improving the health of the Chesapeake Bay, a “one size fits all” approach doesn’t work. A unique conservation plan is required for each farm in the watershed. The conservation plan, tailored to each farm, serves as a blueprint for conservation activities and the best return on investment.

That's why the NRCS and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) are teaming up to provide farmers on the Delmarva Peninsula with a wide array of tools for voluntary conservation.
 
Offered through the NRCS Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), the Delmarva Whole System Conservation Partnership - Field to Stream project works across state lines to further implement advanced nutrient management practices and wetland restoration in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. These conservation practices not only reduce excess nutrients and sediments from entering local waterways and downstream but also help landowners meet their agricultural and natural resource goals.

RCPP empowers local organizations and communities to demonstrate the importance of strong public-private partnerships in delivering solutions to natural resource challenges. Amy Jacobs, Agriculture Program Director for The Nature Conservancy’s Maryland/D.C. Chapter, says: “When NRCS announced a new program that supports local partners to collaborate and innovate on a landscape scale, we jumped at the opportunity to leverage our work to support water quality and wildlife objectives and build new partnerships with conservation and agriculture groups.”

Precisely the Right Choice in Delaware

If you drive along Route 16 in Greenwood, Delaware, you'll likely see a father and son duo on their tractors throughout much of spring, summer and early fall. Scott Webb and his dad Ronnie farm 1,000 acres of corn, soybeans, wheat and barley on their family-based operation, Lea View Farms

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For the last 30 years, Scott and his dad have managed their land as efficiently as possible through soil sampling and following recommendations based on yield goals. Split and timely application techniques have helped them increase productivity of fertilizer applications, but the Webbs knew they could do more.

The Webbs had already begun implementing precision ag practices when they heard about the Delmarva RCPP, a project that would help them implement advanced Global Positioning System (GPS) technologies to ensure the 4Rs - right rate, timing, method, and form of application. They consulted with NRCS Soil Conservationist John Bushey who encouraged them to apply. 

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“They were previously using GPS for yield monitoring and wanted to incorporate it into fertilizer application and seeding with their planter,” said Bushey. “Now they have flow meters that monitor fertilizer in real time from the cab of the tractor.”
 
Scott says the difference in technologies is remarkable. The GPS helped him develop prescriptions for the land, fertilizing at a higher rate only in spots that need it (i.e., going from irrigated to non-irrigated land).

“Before, I would try not to overlap rows or areas with fertilizer,” Scott explains. “With GPS, I don’t have to worry about it. If I am turning or have a shorter row in places, the GPS maps the land and tracks my application, and it will automatically turn the appropriate nozzles off and on so there’s no overlap.”

Scott is also thankful that this project has helped him pay for leaf tissue sampling, an advanced practice that provides a more accurate reading of nitrogen needs as compared to soil sampling alone. He simply picks a leaf off small grain or a corn stalk and sends it to the lab. Once the results are back, Scott puts down the precise amount of nitrogen needed for optimal crop growth.

The advanced nutrient management technology has allowed them to excel in recordkeeping as well, a requirement for farmers with a nutrient management plan. 

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Uncertainty is a part of daily farming operations. While they can’t control variables like rainfall and pests, advanced nutrient management practices help the Webbs eliminate uncertainty in their fertilizer application. These practices also help farmers like the Webbs balance efficiency and profitability with a sustainable and environmentally-friendly operation.

Unique Farm Practices in Maryland

The vertical tillage tool gleams, birds sing from tall grasses atop a bioreactor, and the smell of leafing tomato plants wafts from a high tunnel at Mason’s Heritage in Queen Anne’s, Maryland. 

Bill Mason and his son-in-law Steve Kraszewski farm 850 acres, most of which is dedicated to growing organic corn, soybeans and barley. The sights, sounds and smells on the land are evidence of the pair’s open-minded approach to farming and hunger for science-based solutions to increase their bottom line.

“We try something different on a few acres every year to see if it improves yields,” says Bill. “If a practice shows an economic benefit, helps with impaction issues and lessens our impact on the environment, we’re all for it,” adds Steve.

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Cover crops are planted on every acre in the fall to improve soil health and suppress weeds, with new mixes and rotations added every year. The farms boasts two high tunnels to extend the growing season and improve the quality of the plants grown for the Mason’s produce stand on the farm. A bioreactor filter drains water through a trench filled with woodchips that break down nitrogen compounds and improve water quality.

And reducing tillage is a driving factor in the day-to-day operations at Mason’s Heritage. Vertical tillage equipment is used to lightly till the soil and cut up residue, mixing and anchoring a portion of the residue into the upper few inches of soil while still leaving large quantities of residue on the soil surface. Some fields require strip-tillage, where 6-inch wide residue-free strips of soil are tilled ahead of planting using a knife apparatus, and seeds are planted directly into the strip of loosened soil.

Bill and Steve believe that improving production efficiency goes hand in hand with protecting the natural resources on their farm. “Like any farmer, we’re looking for that golden nugget, the one thing that reduces the time we spend in the field and provides results,” says Bill.

That’s where their interest in using gypsum as a soil amendment developed.

Chemically known as calcium sulfate dehydrate, Gypsum dissolves readily into most soils and releases calcium and sulfate ions that remain free within soil and available for uptake by plants and microorganisms. Gypsum binds with phosphorus in the soil and prevents it from running off. That’s important in this area of the watershed, where poultry litter is often used for fertilizer each spring. The binding property also improves soil infiltration and impaction, obstacles to optimal soil health that many organic farmers face.

At the local Queen Anne’s Soil Conservation District, Bill and Steve signed up for the gypsum soil amendment practice through the Delmarva RCPP Project and the NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). The practice provides producers with the chance to assess the effects on two different crops in their rotation.

Early this spring, Bill and Steve applied gypsum on a 70-acre homogenous field that will be planted in corn. This is the latest addition to their arsenal of conservation practices.

“While we’ll continue to try new practices in hopes that we find a magic bullet, we also realize that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts when it comes to being the best stewards of our land,” says Steve. 

Wetland Restoration in Virginia

While Delaware and Maryland are focusing on the 4Rs for reducing nutrient and sediment runoff from crop fields, NRCS and TNC are concentrating on two “W”s in Virginia: wildlife and wetlands.

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Wetlands are the natural filters of the Delmarva, but a good number have been drained for agricultural production. In Accomack County, Virginia, partners are conducting targeted outreach in the Pocomoke River and Sound Watershed to generate interest in restoring function to marginal cropland and forested areas through USDA programs such as EQIP, Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), and Wetland Reserve Easements (WRE) through the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP).

Wetland restoration is a complex process, requiring the expertise of multiple partners. From site modeling to system design, it takes a village to rebuild site hydrology. Low-lying, wetter areas of fields may need to be retired and permanently vegetated. In some areas, site hydrology may be restored through crushing drain tile and installing ditch plugs to raise the water level and restore wetland function. Wetland buffers may be implemented to intercept nutrients and sediment downstream.

In part, partners identify project participants through geospatial analysis of the watershed. Eligible land includes:

  • Low-lying areas adjacent to channelized sections of streams
  • Ditches with spoil piles or berms near streams and marginal or drained cropland
  • Streams and ditches leading to the Pocomoke River and Sound

To date, much of the work is focused on wetland systems to remedy the widespread ditching and channelization that have lowered the water table on the Eastern Shore. These practices have also disconnected many streams and rivers from adjacent wetlands, allowing water and nutrients from groundwater and in-field ditches to flow downstream towards the Bay.

"Ditching is generally associated with keeping fields in production,” says Jim McGowan, the Land Protection Manager at TNC’s Virginia Coast Reserve. “We may work with farmers to reconfigure an existing ditch to a two-stage design that will hold more water, decrease discharge velocity and allow vegetation to remove nutrients instead of just flushing water out into a stream or bigger channel.”

The TNC partnership is specifically targeting wetland restoration through WRE. McGowan is working with about a half-dozen landowners interested in exploring wetlands restoration options and hopes to have several projects completed by the winter of 2017. 

With ACEP, the NRCS enters into an agreement with the landowner to purchase a conservation easement for up to 95 percent of the appraised value. The program then contributes to all or part of the site’s restoration costs. This permanent (or 30-year) easement promotes long-term conservation benefits on the land. Virginia accepts applications on a continuous basis. 

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“With the TNC we’ve conducted a lot of outreach and working group sessions with partners in Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Virginia to better understand how conservation partners work together to promote conservation, identify hurdles to implementation and improve our program delivery,” says Accomac District Conservationist Jane Corson-Lassiter. “We’ve learned that landowners are very willing to make a big change to improve habitat. That’s the exciting part of the story for me.”

Accomplishing More Together

Don't Just Take It From Us. A Few High Points.

Thanks to conservation efforts large and small - like the Delmarva RCPP - signs of a healthier Bay are evident across the watershed, from grasses on the sea floor to more abundant fish and wildlife and ultimately cleaner water. A number of agencies and non-government organizations are studying the rebound of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem made possible by a variety of sectors, including agriculture.

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Underwater Ecosystems

Underwater grasses, which provide critical food and shelter to wildlife, are thriving. Between 2013 and 2015, they’ve grown from nearly 60,000 acres to more than 91,000, which is the largest amount of grass ecosystems in the past three decades and exceeds the 2017 restoration target two years early (Bay Barometer).

Wildlife

The blue crab, an indicator of the Bay’s health, has seen population spikes. Adult females were up 92 percent in 2016, building on population climbs over several years. The overall crab population is the fourth highest level in two decades (Maryland Department of Natural Resources).

And crab fishermen report a marked improvement in water quality. “The water is as clear as I’ve seen it,” said Nick Crook, a 29-year-old waterman who lives on Kent Island, Maryland. “I think the pollution controls are having a positive effect” (The Washington Post).

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Improving Water Quality

Across the basin, cover crops and other conservation efforts have reduced runoff of nutrients and sediment. From 2009 from tributaries have declined by 8 percent, phosphorus loads by 20 percent and sediment loads by 7 percent (The Chesapeake Bay Program). 

The agriculture sector was the leading contributor for improving water quality — agriculture by itself provided over 50 percent of the phosphorous and 75 percent of the sediment runoff reductions during this period. 

And water quality monitoring stations managed by the U.S. Geological Survey are showing trends of long-term improvements in the streams and rivers that flow into the Bay.

Visit the NRCS website to learn more about conservation efforts and successes in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed:  nrcs.usda.gov/CHESAPEAKE .

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Follow the #Fridaysonthefarm and other voluntary conservation stories on @USDA_NRCS Twitter  and @USDA Facebook . View the interactive ESRI storymap of this #Fridaysonthefarm feature.