By Melisa Luymes
I drove to the Chesapeake Bay in the first week of April and every field I saw across the Delmarva Peninsula through Maryland had a cover crop on it. Every. Last. One. I could barely believe it.
Water quality has been a big concern in their Bay for a while now. They have similar issues to our Lake Erie phosphorus levels and algal blooms, except they are driven more by nitrogen in the Bay’s saltier waters.
As farmers know, nitrogen is both leaky and gassy. If you don’t use it right away, you lose it. This is why applying nitrogen in-season is the most efficient use of it. Over-wintering cover crops means that living roots are making use of that nitrogen to keep it from off-gassing or leaching into watercourses.
While the state of Maryland hugs most of the Chesapeake Bay, the nearly three-million-acre watershed extends far up into New York state, through Pennsylvania and includes Virginia and Washington, D.C. as well. So, perhaps it is no wonder that this body of water gets more attention than others.
And by attention, I mean scrutiny and regulation, but also public support. Maryland is chicken country and farmers require something akin to our nutrient management plans, but their cover crop payment program is the most generous I’ve seen. The base payment is $55/ac (USD) with $10 bonuses for early planting, mix of species or late termination, up to ~$90 on every acre. So that could also explain all the cover crops, I guess.
On the Peninsula, they are farming only a few metres above sea level and only a few minutes from the beach. It is where they swim and where their seafood comes from, so farmers share concerns about the Bay’s water quality.
But what about the headwaters? The headwaters are where all the rivers of a watershed begin. From driving to Maryland and back, I can say with confidence that there is not much farming happening in the Appalachian Mountains, but there are plenty of people living there. And all their activity impacts a body of water several hours downstream.
Let’s bring it closer to home and closer to my heart. This month I’m getting a stewardship program planned with Perth County and its residents. Perth doesn’t touch any of the Great Lakes, but it is the headwaters of five major rivers that go to Lake Huron, Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie. While the population of Perth County is less than 40,000, their activities impact well over 400,000 people that live just along these five rivers… not to mention the millions that live around the lakes.
By the time a river reaches a lake or an ocean, it is basically too late to clean it up. Water quality is the sum of millions of decisions on millions of acres upstream. This means there are millions of opportunities to improve it. In towns, we can improve stormwater management, wastewater treatment and reduce lawn fertilizers; in rural areas there are opportunities for wetlands and woodlots, buffers on streams and ditches, as well as improving management of soil, manure and fertilizer. Controlling and recycling field drainage water for irrigation is another big win-win for farming and water quality, and I’m really looking forward to seeing more of this innovation in Ontario.
I’ve also done some work in the Garvey-Glenn watershed, north of Goderich. These farmers have worked with Maitland Conservation, the Huron Clean Water Project and other funding partners and done phenomenal work in their headwaters, with dozens of erosion control berms, min-till and cover crops, and buffering 90 per cent of the drains and watercourses. But the whole watershed is only 4,200 acres before it hits Lake Huron and includes about 25 farmers – that all know each other. On that scale, there is a lot more motivation to improve the downstream conditions when you see them all the time.
It is harder to see our shared responsibility in the Grand River watershed (1.5 million acres) or the Thames (850,00 acres) but it is still there. And by shared responsibility, I do really mean shared. In Perth County, farmers make up eight per cent of the population but manage 93 per cent of the acres. Improving water quality can be a huge investment of time and resources that shouldn’t fall unfairly to farmers, who are already up against our cheap food policy. I don’t know how I feel about $70-120 per acre payments for cover crops, but I do think the responsibility for water quality falls on everyone who eats.
This is a shared responsibility not only to those downstream whom we don’t even know, but to millions of people in the generations coming after us who we will never get a chance to meet. It is a responsibility I’d like us to take very seriously. ◊