Chesapeake Bay Ag's Dirty Little Secret

Nor' east Thinkin'

Despite agriculture's efforts, small farmers and newbies are the biggest handicaps to the Chesapeake Bay cleanup

Published on: April 23, 2012

 During a skull session at Penn State College of Ag Science’s recent Ag Council meeting, water quality and quantity was voted by ag industry participants as top priority issues for Extension educational outreach efforts. Then, thanks to Matt Ehrhart, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Pennsylvania office, the “dam” broke.

Small-scale farmers – not the medium-sized or large-scale farmers – are largely the ones impeding progress in the Chesapeake Bay cleanup, pointed out Ehrhart. And, surprisingly, the ag organization leaders in that session agreed.

Virtually all state ag organizations are "on board" with cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay watershed as a top priority. Millions of dollars in state and federal funds are available to help.

Yet, significant elements of the Plain community and small farmers aren’t “on board” for several reasons. Amish sects generally have a policy of not participating (accepting money) in government programs – laudable in one sense, not so in another. Local bishops – right or wrong – are often the key decision-makers. This will require extreme tact by a person respected and trusted by the sect leaders.

Some small-scale producers refuse to innovate due to ignorance or due to upfront costs perceived as unaffordable even with matching funds. Others, notably those relatively new to agriculture and hobby farmers, just don’t know and may not yet be plugged into the greater ag community. This latter group may be the easiest to bring into the fold.

Success only via diplomacy and patience

All three of the above groups pose significant educational challenges, particularly for Cooperative Extension and county Soil and Water Conservation districts. In fact, new, old ways must be tried to bring them to table.

The best way still is a “show me and inspire me” approach – not intimidation! You never get a mule moving forward by whipping its behind.

Precisely targeted on-farm demonstration plots of best management practices, linked with personalized invitations of "show-and-tell events" to neighbors is a tried-and-proven success – with a free lunch of course. But skip lecture about the educational importance of the BPM. Go directly to the meat of the message.

It must be clear: “You can gain or save X dollars by putting this practice in place – and the Chesapeake Bay will be better for it.” Teamed with an immediate follow-up, it’ll yield results – if the dollars are there to do the job.

On the other hand, if the returns aren’t recoverable, don’t ask those farmers to make sacrifices they can’t afford to make. That's a decision that can only be made by the individual farmer, not a bureaucrat.

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