Cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay is a universally accepted good thing. How it’s being done is not so well accepted, especially by Virginia farmers and a recent study by Virginia Tech researchers indicates the farmers might well be getting the proverbial short end of the stick.

The Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, one voice for state farmers, has publicly opposed legislation they feel puts too much burden on farmers. In particular, the group contends the recent Chesapeake Bay Clean Water and Ecosystem Restoration Act doesn’t give farmers enough credit for conservation efforts over the past 20-plus years that has significantly contributed to reducing pollution in the Bay.

"Virginia farmers are committed to bay restoration efforts. We've been doing our part for decades,'' said Wayne Pryor, the group's president. "Now we feel we are being unfairly blamed for the majority of the Chesapeake Bay pollution."

According to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and the Virginia office of the National Agricultural Statistics Service, state farmers used 269,000 fewer tons of fertilizer in the years since the Bay cleanup efforts started in 1987.

Among the concerns of agriculture — and not just in the Chesapeake Watershed — are the following points of the Chesapeake Clean Water and Ecosystem Restoration Act of 2009 which would:

1) codify the Bay-wide pollution budget or “Total Maximum Daily Load” (TMDL) for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment that EPA is in the process of developing for the Bay. By Dec. 31, 2010, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment pollution caps for all sources of pollution will be allocated to states and tributary watersheds.

2) Give the federal government authority to compel the states to reduce nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment loads to meet the TMDL allocations, not by expanding the scope of direct federal regulation, but by adopting the Clean Air Act approach, i.e., setting a federal standard and giving the states flexibility in meeting it.                       

3) Require states to submit “watershed implementation plans” to the EPA Administrator by May 2011, explaining how they will achieve their pollution loads from all sources by May 2025. The plan must be designed to achieve at least 60 percent of the needed pollution reductions by May 2017.

While it’s easy to point an accusatory finger at farmers, the reality is that farmers have much more to lose by polluting the Chesapeake Bay, or any stream or estuary, than the non-farming public. Farmers suffer the same environmental fate as any other citizen, but in addition they are paying for the excess chemicals that go for any other purpose than to provide nutrients for a target crop.

One of the big complaints of farmers has to do with the Environmental Protection Agency’s establishment of a pollution diet for the Chesapeake Bay. Technically, the diet is called a total maximum daily load. They are using a computer simulation model to set limits for N, P and K sediment throughout the 64,000 square mile watershed.

Effects on farmers, if these TMDL levels are enforced, goes well beyond Virginia, Maryland and the other states that impact the Chesapeake Bay. This is land-mark legislation that could well affect farmers throughout the country.

The model being used by the EPA considers the total acreage under conservation practices, such as no-till farm land. Rightfully, no-till land is considered to place less N,P and K into streams that feed into the Chesapeake Bay. The problem is that, according to farmers, consultants and other agricultural leaders in Virginia, the number of acres considered to be under conservation-tillage practices is off — way off.

The model uses Virginia’s Department of Conservation and Recreation’s (DCR) data to allocate nutrient losses from agricultural fields. Figures used for the model allocate 15 percent of Virginia’s crop acres as being in a DCR no-till program.