Almost anyone involved in agriculture understands that if you were to compare the environmental value of an acre of well-managed farmland and an acre of development, farmland would come out ahead, says Jim Baird, director of American Farmland Trust's Mid-Atlantic office. Farms provide towns with flood control protection, help recharge groundwater and offer habitat to wildlife and pollinators.
Keeping land in farms means fewer septic systems and impervious surfaces that increase runoff, carry pollution and erode stream banks. So why isn't protecting farms at the head of the clean-up list for the Chesapeake Bay and other polluted water bodies? That's the environmental quality question Baird has been raising recently at meetings.
Sustaining farms over time would avoid future pollution from development. Permanently protecting them would take waterways out of harm's way forever, contends this farm preservation advocate.
The problem, he says, is that a farm looks different when viewed through the lens of the regulations and pollution limits. Total daily maximum (pollution) loads and watershed implementation plans focus solely on nutrient reductions from today's emissions. They don't take into account the protection and maintenance value that a conserved farm offers in the future.
Worse, the accounting system used to compare farmland to residential development often leaves out a key element (wastewater). So, turning farms into houses actually looks like an improvement for the Bay.
Looking at water quality through this narrow lens is a huge problem, argues Baird. It drives funding toward short-term reductions at the expense of long-term maintenance.
~~~PAGE_BREAK_HERE~~~It also misses the fact that sound planning to protect rural agricultural areas and grow where we have existing services will allow more economic development with less pollution. This sets the stage for poor policy decision-making.
A better idea
American Farmland Trust recently developed a more balanced approach to calculating farm nutrient loads. "We included all storm and waste water from new houses and commercial development accompanying them," he explains.
"We assumed a similar level of conservation by farmers and developers. This analysis for agricultural and developed land in Baltimore County and the state of Maryland found that farms had a 20% lower nitrogen impact on the Chesapeake Bay."
A second analysis by the Maryland Department of Planning showed that when pollution emitted per person (rather than per acre) is examined, location matters. Five new residents moving to rural green fields will produce 100 pounds of nitrogen per year.
For that same amount of nitrogen, you can have 35 new residents if there are existing wastewater and other services. Under the new regulations with hard caps on nutrients, this finding could greatly influence where communities choose to locate new developments.
In Maryland (at least), farmland, on average, sends less pollution to the Bay than development. That dispels the myth that converting farms to "green development" is a pollution solution.
When the region's 17 million residents take on the task of "fixing" an estuary, it makes a big difference where the next million set up house. Those aware of this issue are far too few, maintains Baird.
"Everyone involved in agriculture – including those who value farms for food, recreation, pumpkin patches and petting farms – needs to help recast farms as essential to sustaining Bay ecosystems. Then policy makers will start appreciating and supporting the key role that farms and farmland play in keeping our waterways clean."
Baird can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .