ALONG the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, farmers like Temple Rhodes of Centreville, Md., prove that farming can be productive and profitable while preserving the bay.
The efforts of nearly 97% of farmers in the region are starting to make a very significant impact of implementing voluntary, incentive-based conservation practices in the Chesapeake Bay through a partnership among state and federal agencies, conservation districts and producers.
Few regions of the country are more closely scrutinized, and Rhodes is not alone in his efforts to reduce nutrient losses from his cropland.
Jerry Silver has a corn and cattle farm near Fredericksburg, Va., that has been in his family for more than a century. During a recent visit from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Silver displayed some of his successful conservation practices: cover crops to reduce soil erosion and a manure storage structure to prevent runoff. He also implements no-till planting to improve soil health.
Rhodes has multiple reasons for intensively managing the nutrients he applies to the soil his family uses to grow corn, soybeans and wheat. As a businessman, he doesn't want to spend his fertilizer dollars ineffectively. As a grower, he relies on fertilizer to enrich the productivity of the land. As an avid outdoorsman, Rhodes takes seriously his responsibility to care for the soil and water resources on which he and others depend.
To achieve his objectives, Rhodes works with Maryland-based Willard Agri-Service to implement the "4Rs" — fertilizer best management practices selected to apply the Right nutrient source at the Right rate at the Right time and in the Right place.
Willard applies custom liquid fertilizers and crop protectants and offers Chesapeake Bay farmers data collection support and related crop production services. The company believes Rhodes' farming practices represent the direction many bay-area farmers are headed.
"Embracing fertilizer best management practices improves yields and profitability of today's harvests," Willard vice president of sales and marketing Mike Twining said. "These same practices also reduce the loss of nutrients to the bay by converting ever-higher percentages of the applied nutrients into healthy food and fiber for human consumption. Our clients are increasingly adopting practices similar to those on Rhodes' farm."
Rhodes' farming methods offer insight to the types of practices being implemented in the Chesapeake Bay.
To reduce nutrient loss, he never applies fertilizer on the soil surface. A modified strip-till planter enables him to place nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium 8 in. below the surface for corn and soybean production so nutrients get right into the root zone, where they're readily accessible to plants, while helping to eliminate runoff and volatilization. A stabilizer added to the fertilizer further prevents nitrogen loss to groundwater. This strip-till strategy results in better crop yields.
Nutrient application at Rhodes' Chestnut Manor Farms is site specific, guided by global positioning system-linked soil maps that enable Rhodes to match the right fertilizer and seeding rates to reflect the potential of specific productivity environments. The guidance systems provide pinpoint accuracy for fertilizer, chemical and seed placement.
Tissue sampling during the growing season is used to assess plant nutrition status at each stage of development so Rhodes can further fine-tune fertilizer applications.
In addition to high-tech techniques for managing nutrients, Rhodes plants forage oilseed radishes as a cover crop to retain nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium through the winter, reduce soil compaction and prevent erosion. He also relies on buffer strips and waterways to help protect soil and water.
Like his diversified approach to nutrient stewardship, his family farm is a model of diversification that seeks to make the most of the land Rhodes' manages.
His family has a commercial Angus cow herd and harvests straw from their wheat crop, transporting it to Pennsylvania, where it is used as a growing medium in mushroom production.
Vilsack noted that 15 million tons of soil per year once went into rivers and streams, but this is no longer the case in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed area. "This is positive news and certainly an indication that conservation works," he said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) released a report showing that over the past seven years, conservation efforts have reduced the annual amount of nitrogen leaving fields by 48.6 million lb., or about 26%, and reduced phosphorus by 7.1 million lb., or 46%, Vilsack said.
"These conservation practices are also preventing soil erosion, helping to ensure that our farm fields across the Chesapeake Bay Watershed remain vibrant and productive in the years to come," Vilsack said.
Conservation practices have lowered the estimated amount of eroded soil every year by about 15.1 million tons, or 60% (Infographic). Put another way, that's enough soil to fill about 150,000 railcars.
The Chesapeake Bay Watershed touches six states and is home to 17 million people and almost 84,000 farms and ranches. Agriculture contributes about $10 billion annually to the region's economy.
Conservation practices have additional environmental benefits, such as sequestering carbon and making farms more resilient to extreme weather events linked to climate change.
In order to boost conservation efforts in the region, USDA launched the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative in 2008. USDA targeted funding for the initiative to priority watersheds and practices that would have the biggest impact on watershed health.
Due to these efforts, the NRCS report highlights a wider acceptance of innovative conservation practices. Notably, some form of erosion control has been adopted on 97% of cropland acres in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.
While this does not mean that all acres are fully treated to address sediment and nutrient losses, it is a positive indication of farmers' willingness to do their part to help restore the watershed, USDA said.
Additionally, the report shows increased use of cover crops by farmers in the bay watershed. Since 2006, land with cover crops in a cropping system increased from 12% of acres to 52%.
Farmers also are using a variety of other conservation practices, such as no-till, that help keep nutrients and sediment on fields and out of nearby waterways.
The results of the latest NRCS report correlate with the findings of a National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD) study done in 2011 that identified 25-30% more conservation on the land than had been recorded previously. These results indicate a positive trend in the application of conservation practices in the watershed.
"The report highlights the importance of conservation planning," NACD president Earl Garber said. "No single practice applies for every producer on cultivated cropland; the use of a comprehensive conservation plan has been critical to these water quality successes."
Six state conservation agencies and 127 conservation districts have partnered with the federal government and private landowners to help accelerate conservation in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed over the last 30 years, especially during the past 10 years as conservation concerns of crop farmers have become a higher priority.