After decades of effort, the voluntary, collaborative approach to restoring the health and vitality of the Chesapeake Bay— the largest estuary in the United States—has not worked and, in fact, is failing. A diverse group of 57 senior scientists and policymakers have joined forces to save the Bay. This is our plan.

Attacking the Model Is No Favor to Farmers

(Posted by Hank Zygmunt.)

After attending the recent U.S. Agriculture Congressional Chesapeake Bay House hearing I recalled many conversations I had with a number of farmers throughout my career. At workshops, farm visits and town hall meetings, farmers shared concerns about local water quality and their desire to share in the responsibility to restore their local streams, creeks and rivers.

For farmers, saving the Chesapeake Bay is secondary to their concerns about the health of their local waterbodies. And understandably so, because most of them are not directly impacted by the degraded water quality of the Bay even though they are part of the overall process as it relates to the Chesapeake Bay TMDL. However, whether located in the Shenandoah Valley, the Eastern Shore or Lancaster County, there is a strong recognition, from all sectors, for the need to address local water quality challenges that are dominated by agricultural production.

Nonetheless, neither the progress that has been made nor the work necessary yet to get done should be thwarted or clouded by disagreements about the accuracy of the Bay model. The model, based on TMDL reduction requirements, is not perfect, but provides an agreeable target. It has been said, “All models are flawed. Some are useful.” This model is useful; it is among the most sophisticated in the world and has served the Bay restoration efforts well.

Let’s not lose sight of the fact that the model will continue to evolve and be refined as more data is made available. But to stop and raise a time-out flag that thwarts ongoing progress and momentum is counterproductive to the Bay partnership commitments and to our stewardship of both the Bay and local waters. Not only does it send the wrong message to the farm community but also deters the confidence of the general public to support restoration efforts in recognition of the progress that has been achieved.

On-the-ground agricultural practices need to be accelerated now, while the Bay model continues to evolve. From a common sense standpoint we cannot afford to wait and wait, knowing that each year more controllable pollution is entering Bay waters. Identifying such a fine point for pollution control will not get the Bay restored; or satisfy the naysayers, as they will continue to question precision—an excuse for delaying action. We may also debate whether some of these nay-saying organizations and leaders may have other misguided aspirations.

So our focus must remain strong and steady on protecting and improving water quality, first in our own backyard and as a result for our downstream neighbors. Doing well by doing good. By taking responsibility and being backyard stewards we are serving the overarching mission of saving the Bay.

An analogy to consider would be the patient who is told by his doctor that he has a disease for which there is no cure. The doctor can either tell the patient to go home and wait for the cure to be discovered, or the doctor could recommend a number of things that could improve the patient’s odds and improve his quality of life.

We couldn’t and shouldn’t accept the “prescription” of no action currently being advocated by certain sectors and wait for the “cure.” We must continue to take responsible action to protect and improve the health of the Bay.

Hank Zygmunt served 36 years with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. During this time a number of environmental achievements defined Hank’s career. These included: EPA/OSM Abandoned Acid Mine Drainage initiative , Offshore Oil and Gas NPDES program, National Poultry Dialogue, CAFO rule development, Perdue Farms/USEPA Clean Bays Agreement, Science Advisor on toxic/water quality related legislation for the U.S. Senate and Nonpoint Source and Chesapeake Bay Program management.

During his last several years at EPA he provided support to the Administrators Office on national and Chesapeake Bay issues as well as serving as EPA’s Mid-Atlantic Office as the Agricultural Advisor leading EPA’s Agriculture Work Group for State Phase I Watershed Implementation Plans/TMDL.

Presently, Hank is a member of Resource Dynamics, Inc. working under a grant from the Keith Campbell Foundation.

One Response to Attacking the Model Is No Favor to Farmers

  1. November 16, 2011

    Buzz Hoerr, Chairman
    Citizens Advisory Committee
    Lake Champlain Basin Program
    2028 Flynn Avenue
    Burlington, VT 05401

    Dear Buzz:

    It is my contention that the rise in nutrient pollution in Lake Champlain from Vermont dairy farms is coincident with the trend to consolidate thousands of small, well-dispersed farms into a hundred medium farm operations (MFOs) and a few dozen Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). I also contend that your committee’s inclination to dedicate resources to small farm operations (SFOs) as a strategy to stanch pollution from dairy farms is inconsistent with the data.

    I call your attention to data from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets (VAAF&M) in which we see that the number of dairy farms in Vermont has fallen steadily from 11,206 in 1947 to 1,055 in 2010 and that the total number of cows housed on Vermont dairy farms in the same period fell by half from 275,000 to 136,000. Notwithstanding these trends, milk/cow tripled from 5,420 lbs in 1947 to 18,544 lbs in 2010, causing total production to double from 1.5B to 3B lbs.

    I also call your attention to the Lake Champlain Basin Program’s Long-term Water Quality and Biological Monitoring Project Report that measures trends of phosphorous loading into the lake. The data indicate “no phosphorus concentration declines have been detected during the period 1990-2008 but that levels are increasing in several segments.”

    While Vermont’s legislature seems unwilling to enact policies to stanch dairy’s contribution to lake pollution, an objective person might deduce from these data that:

    1. As the number of farms in Vermont decreased, lake pollution increased
    2. As the number of cows in Vermont decreased, lake pollution increased
    3. As the number of cows/farm in Vermont increased, lake pollution increased
    4. As milk production/cow in Vermont increased, lake pollution increased
    5. As total milk production in Vermont increased, lake pollution increased

    Concentrating many hundreds or even thousands of cows under one roof on one farm, feeding them high protein concentrate instead of forage, medicating them and milking them 3X/day for maximum production are the basic tenets of the conventional dairy farm business model, the adoption of which is also coincident with:

    1. The introduction of soluble, petroleum-based nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers, synthetic herbicides, antibiotics and pharmaceuticals
    2. The replacement of solid manure management systems with liquid manure management systems
    3. The replacement of the traditional locally grown forage based ration with the protein-rich diet of corn and soybeans grown conventionally in the Midwest
    4. The discontinuation of mechanical cultivation for weed control
    5. The discontinuation of crop rotation for soil fertility
    6. Shrinking debt to equity ratio on most if not all Vermont dairy farms
    7. Stagnant federal milk price since the 1980s
    8. Steadily rising variable cost schedule
    9. Declining or negative milk price to feed cost ratio
    10. Steadily declining per capita US milk consumption since the 1970s
    11. Adverse shift in the Utilization (less milk sold into higher-priced, fluid milk market, more sold into lower-priced, manufactured milk products market)
    12. Consolidation of thousands of regional milk processors/manufacturers into five or eight national behemoths
    13. The intrusion into farm economics of a cocktail of state and federal subsidies
    a. Current Use programs, Tax exemptions, abatements and refunds
    b. Private or taxpayer funded conservation easements, wetland reserves
    c. Cost sharing for fencing, ditching, manure lagoons, tiling, manure digesters, infrastructure “improvements” and out right cash disbursements
    d. Compensation paid to farmers for compliance with setbacks, buffers

    The data suggest that the trend away from thousands of small, well-dispersed dairy farms to a few hundred MFOs and a few dozen CAFOs is correlated with the rise of phosphorus loading in the lake. Correlation is not causation; yet some agent has laid waste to 93% of Vermont’s small to medium-sized dairy farms, the ones 97% of Vermonters told the Survey on the Future of Vermont they support. Is it not tempting to conclude that the conventional dairy paradigm is itself that agent? Even so, the Citizens Advisory Committee is not charged with redesigning dairy farming (or the state’s water treatment plants and storm water infrastructure.) CAC’s mandate is to recommend to the legislature remedies that when passed into law will stanch the flow of pollutants entering Lake Champlain.

    Conventional dairy contributes 50-60% of the nutrients now in and still entering the lake. Were the condition of the Vermont dairy industry and the inflow of lake pollution increasing directly, the state would have to choose between a strong dairy industry and clean water. But the attrition of Vermont dairy farms is increasing inversely with the flow of pollutants into the lake. So the CAC can recommend one policy that simultaneously disadvantages the destructive conventional dairy farm paradigm, stanches the flow of pollutants entering the lake and advantages small dairy farmers—the ones tourists come here to see—putting them squarely on the road to recovery. To discharge its duty, the CAC must ignore the difficult social implications of this observation and recommend to the legislature that it:

    1. Regulate the importation, transportation, sale and application of all petroleum-based, nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides
    2. Regulate the planting of all annual row crops in the flood plain
    3. Regulate the importation, transportation, sale and feeding of all animal feed grown by conventional methods in other states
    4. Limit the housing of more than one cow for every two acres of cropland upon which that cow’s manure is spread and her feed is grown.

    In sum, Vermont cannot guard the public trust or meet its obligations under The Clean Water Act (1972) by sweeping under the rug the major contribution made by large conventional dairy farms. Governor Shumlin and the VAAF&M have a duty to guarantee Vermont’s 600,000 citizens that their water supply will not be polluted or their economy eroded by a failing dairy industry.

    Sincerely yours,

    James H. Maroney, Jr.

    cc: David Mears, Commissioner of Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation