Monday, May 18, 2009

Right to Farm

In Frederick County, we have a Right to Farm ordinance. Why would farmers need to be guaranteed a right to farm, when farming is the backbone of Frederick County's industry (and about 2/3 of its land mass)? Here is a summary of the ordinance:
When non-agricultural land uses extend into agricultural areas, agricultural operations can become the subject of lawsuits. As a result, agricultural operators are sometimes forced to cease or curtail their operations. Others are discouraged from making investments in agricultural improvements to the detriment of the economic viability of the County's agricultural industry as a whole. It is the purpose of this Ordinance to reduce the loss to the County of its agricultural resources by limiting the circumstances under which agricultural operations may be deemed to constitute a nuisance, trespass, or other interference with the reasonable use and enjoyment of land, including, but not limited to smoke, odors, flies, dust, noise, chemicals, or vibration; provided that nothing in this Ordinance shall in any way restrict or impede the authority of the State and of the County to protect the public health, safety and welfare, nor shall it restrict or impede private covenants.
Let's face it: farms are smelly, farm tractors slow traffic down, and farm fields can be dusty. Farms and homes don't make the best neighbors. But no farms, no food. This issue is becoming more and more of a problem as we carve new suburbs out of old farms and put them next to existing farm operations. And that is why an ordinance was passed in Frederick County back in 1997 to protect farms.

But more than just neighbor issues, our culture is less and less supportive of farms. My job-job is to protect and restore streams threatened by the impacts from urban stormwater. Being in this field, I hear a lot about agriculture too. I hear about this issue from many sides: the farmers, the government agencies that work with farmers, environmental groups, and citizens. The article, "Farmers: Regulations, complaints making life difficult on the farm" in FNP by Ike Wilson and a followup editorial made me pause. The conflict between farms and environmental interests from a farmer's perspective can be summed up in this quote by Gareth Harshman, a former President of the Frederick County Farm Bureau:
"They feel that the farmer is the number one polluter of the Chesapeake Bay and streams. It only takes one person to make a mistake or human error and there are people who will make life miserable for everybody.
Here are some of my observations from working in the field:
  • Everybody pollutes. The person pointing the finger at the farm may live in an exurban suburb that caused tremendous damage to the nearby stream during the development conversion process, and may continue to damage the stream through overfertilization or inappropriate use of pesticides and herbicides too close to waterways. Wastewater plants pollute. Septics pollute. Farms pollute. We can all point fingers at someone else but what is within the locus of our control is our own actions.
  • As Rick Hood said to me recently, if you have a farm, you have pollution. You may have more pollution or less pollution. But pollution to some degree is inevitable with farming. Should we ban all farms?
  • On the other hand, there are good actors and bad actors. There are farms with pretty amazing "best management practices" (BMPs) like cover crops, fencing, manure management, streamside buffers, you name it. There are farms that have cattle trampling bare stream corridors and pooping directly in the streams. Contrary to what you may think, this is not illegal. There is a whole spectrum of behavior.
  • Sometimes a BMP would take profitable land out of production, and the farmer needs the margin to stay profitable. Other farms are not especially profitable, and these farms typically can't afford best management practices. A lot of programs also don't want to support these farms because there is a good likelihood they won't be in operation in another few years, so there is a Catch-22.
  • Some farms don't have BMPs because they don't want to deal with the government. I can appreciate this, as I have heard lots of stories. Such as: the government made farmers plant multiflora rose as a fence and now we can't get rid of it. But there are many good best management practices out there that can help keep cattle from getting disease, can provide nutrients to revitalize soil, and can prevent the loss of valuable topsoil. There are also places other than the government to get these resources
  • Some farmers have philosophical issues with subsidies. This may hamper a farm from being able to afford BMPs.
  • A lot of farmers are in their 50s and 60s and don't have kids who want to farm. This makes an expensive BMP investment seem unwise.
  • A lot of farmers are also naturalists, because they depend on the land for their livelihoods, and can read it so closely. Most farmers are actively concerned about improving their operations to reduce pollution.
  • A lot of best management practices have improved and the programs have changed to become more desirable. Farmers who have not talked to the Soil Conservation Districts in a few years might want to talk to them again.
  • Voluntary pollution reduction is a "tragedy of the commons" type issue but regulation is not much better. Farm pollution is regulated through plans, somewhat through the execution of the plans, but not the results of the execution in the water quality. Urban runoff is regulated through the creation and execution of plans, but not the results. This is changing due to interest from environmental groups. This sounds like a good idea until you see it in practice and learn that there are no best management practices that are good enough to reduce the 90 or 95 percent of pollution needed to meet water quality standards (except for converting to forest- otherwise they are 12-60 percent effective on average), and that many of the standards in the regulation designed to support fishable and swimmable waters are not even met in nature because of pollution from things like birds and deer. Or because they are for lakes that would naturally not be lakes. Add to that the impossibility of monitoring individual sources of environmental improvement or degradation on a daily basis, and you have a quandary. We are going to see a lot of battles fought in the next few years in the form of lawsuits, and they may backfire for people who are truly interested in seeing water quality improve.
  • The implementation of some BMPs is limited by how ratty they can look. Farmers often balk at planting trees in stream corridors because, ironically, their neighbors complain about the weediness, or because their parents or grandparents would have looked in horror at something unkempt in appearance. Inversely, I have seen some really gorgeous plantings.
  • Sometimes the programs want farmers to install BMPs in places they won't work. Like trees in a floodplain area that will drown, that the farmer will be responsible to replace over and over.
  • Some BMPs have more demand than there is money for, like cover crops. The rules for cover crops make it difficult for farmers in the highlands with shorter growing seasons.
  • Lots of farms now are "gentleman" operations that aren't eligible for BMP funds. A big issue is horse operations on small properties.
  • Farmers are the most independent people I know and yet their industry has so many middlemen and regulations it's a wonder that any of them stay in business.
  • It's really valuable to build relationships with farmers, visit their operations if possible, and support them if you believe in what they are doing. In our area, you can have a real relationship with a farmer and product that I believe will enrich your family's life. This also will allow a farmer to make profit that would otherwise go to multiple third parties (Randy Sower from Catoctin Mountain Creamery estimates "four different groups" in most circumstances.)
  • Don't buy a house in an "exurban" development next to farms if you want a bucolic, pastoral scene. You'll get flies. You'll plant screen trees to protect yourself from dust, but they won't keep out the loud noises or the smells. You can try to get help from the government through a reconciliation committee as detailed in the Real Estate Transfer Disclosure Statement you signed when buying property, but you may discover that your discomfort can't be mitigated. In Frederick, we have a right to farm.


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