Just when Virginia farmers thought they had a handle on the Chesapeake Bay restoration issue along came some changes to the nutrient management planning model from the EPA, and when applied to county and local areas, these changes are forcing farmers to ask the all too common question: What next?

Katie Frazier, who took over as Executive Director of the Virginia Grain Growers Association in 2011, says when she took the job she was convinced by the end of the year grain farmers in Virginia would have a clear understanding of exactly what they needed to do to comply with EPA guidelines for nutrient management.

In December of 2010, the EPA approved the final TDML, or total daily maximum load for discharge of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment from farmland into streams that feed into the Chesapeake Bay. Based on these guidelines, Virginia began holding local meetings to determine how each county or municipality would best comply.

When applied at the local level, some significant abnormalities began to show up.

For example, in some cases farmers who met TDML by using best management practices and a nutrient management plan agreed to by the EPA were not only not given credit for these practices, but in some cases were penalized for using them.

“I don’t understand, I think most farmers don’t understand exactly how or why EPA made these changes to the Nutrient Management Model,” Frazier says.

“One of the major problems with these changes for Virginia’s row crop farmers is the loss of nutrient credit. After the changes were made, about 50 percent of Virginia farmland that was targeted for the nutrient management plan to meet the state’s allocation for discharge into the Chesapeake Bay was re-classified as receiving negative credit for having a nutrient management plan in place,” she explains.

The rationale from EPA’s new Bay Model was that having a nutrient management plan would put more nutrients on the land based on having a plan. Therefore, the individual farmer would receive negative credit for doing what they were asked to do to meet the nutrient model guidelines set forth in the EPA’s December 2010 plan for total daily nutrient load into streams that feed into the Chesapeake Bay.

“This is totally backwards to what most farmers consider to be the impact of using best management practices to implement a nutrient management plan. It just doesn’t make much sense to farmers,” Frazier says.

Confusion is not a new state of mind for Virginia growers over the whole issue of the Chesapeake Bay Restoration. Since the Federal government took over implementation of the Chesapeake Bay restoration, there have been conflicting messages at to what is expected of farmers to meet these guidelines.

Concerned with data used

The first concern among Virginia farmers was the data used to create the guidelines. Farmers claimed, and later documented, that EPA data concerning the number of acres in Virginia in conservation-tillage was off by more than 70 percent.

Subsequent farmer-provided data has been more carefully considered by the EPA in developing TDML guidelines for the Bay Restoration. In general, farmers were positive about the December 2010 guidelines and appeared to have some measure of closure, or at least some indication that final, workable guidelines were forthcoming.

That positive attitude has been significantly deflated by application of the model, including recent changes made by the EPA, made to counties and local municipalities.

Perhaps more troubling for agriculture in general is that the six states that contain streams that feed into the Chesapeake Bay, and the subsequent plan to restrict the flow of nutrients from farmland in these states, will be the model used nationwide.

Next up will be the Mississippi River and its thousand mile trip from Minnesota to the Gulf Coast. The impact on agriculture will be ramped up significantly when EPA models are applied to the heart of America’s farmland.

If there is a bright side for Virginia’s farmers it is that Federal aid to farmers trying to meet TDML guidelines continued to flow for the 2011 cropping season.

 “The Action Plan for FY 2011 reflects a deep commitment and unprecedented coordination among federal agencies and the Obama Administration to improve our results in protecting and restoring the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed,” said Pete Silva, EPA Associate Administrator for Water.

“The proposed funding and planned activities will help support state and local efforts, as well as be an investment in countless communities and local economies throughout the region,” he concludes.

Among the restoration projects and programs identified for FY 2011 is $72 million in financial and technical assistance targeted to help farmers implement voluntary conservation practices in high-priority areas.

More than $20 million is targeted to go directly to the states to implement stronger regulatory and accountability programs to control urban, suburban, and agricultural runoff, plus $30 million for land protection.

Federal dollars targeted for Chesapeake Bay Restoration may be but a small drop in a big bucket if local governments are accurate in their cost assessments.

In Maryland, which has been placed under a strict plan for meeting EPA guidelines, officials in Anne Arundel County estimate the plan could cost hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Where the money will come from has left county officials scrambling to find local, state and federal funds.    

In nearby Prince George County, Md., officials haven’t made public what the restoration costs may be. However, in a recent presentation before the Prince George's County Council earlier this month, it was estimated it would cost the county and municipal governments $777.2 million through 2020 to meet the pollution-reduction goals.

County governments throughout Virginia are in the process of making similar cost assessments. Changes to the EPA model not only make it difficult to assess the final cost, but make it economically risky for farmers to develop a TDML plan.

“We are urging our farmers to continue with the best management plans they have in place, but it’s difficult to ask a farmer to go the extra step that could cost them money and reduce the credits they get for implementing nutrient management plans,” Frazier says.

“Virginia farmers are continuing to do the best management practices that have been a part of their farming operation and they continue to apply these practices to the nutrient management plan. However, most farmers are skeptical of how all this work out at the end of the day,” Frazier concludes.

rroberson@farmpress.com