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.