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We’re Halfway There: Keeping Soil and Cows Out of Our Waters

This is one in a series of articles about farmers in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed who have implemented Best Management Practices (BMPs), demonstrating that agriculture is halfway to achieving the nutrient reductions needed to restore the Chesapeake Bay.

Buff Showalter standing in front of recently cut “Marshall” rye grass in the foreground and barley in the background. Both are excellent cover crops.

Dayton, Va. – “We’ve done two very important things on this farm that have helped with production and the environment: Keeping the soil on the land and out of the river is number one, and number two is keeping our cows out of the streams,” said Buff Showalter, fourth generation Mennonite farmer in the Shenandoah Valley.

Building soil health is high on Showalter’s priority list. High-diversity cover crops and little, if any, soil disturbance help him average 3.8 to 4.0 percent organic matter. 

“That’s huge,” said Virginia Natural Resources Conservation Service State Agronomist Chris Lawrence.  “Soil organic matter is a good barometer for measuring soil health.” 

Lawrence added, “As soil health improves, crop yields increase. Likewise, as soil health improves, the soil is better able to perform its key environmental function—absorbing rain and cycling nutrients for plant use. The overall result is less runoff and less sediment and fewer nutrients downstream.”

Showalter fenced his cattle out of the streams years ago for several reasons. 

“Floods kept washing our fences out, and we had foot problems with our cows,” he said. “Common sense and science has proven that cows in the stream are not good for water quality or for your cows.

“Our farm is in the Lower Dry River watershed, and we’ve come a long way in five years. Farmers in this watershed are putting in a lot of conservation because we want to de-list the stream from the state’s dirty water’s list. It’s good for our water and good for our land as well.”

Showalter has participated in many of the programs available to farmers that help with technical assistance and fund Best Management Practices to build soil health, improve water quality, and establish wildlife habitat.

To find out more, contact your local Soil and Water Conservation District or the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

—Bobby Whitescarver  

Whitescarver is a recently retired USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) conservationist who spent more than 30 years working with farmers on conservation practices. He now has his own private consulting business where he helps landowners create an overall vision and plan for their land. He also works with CBF to help famers install more Best Managment Practices (BMPs) in the Shenandoah Valley. He is the recipient of a CBF Conservationist of the Year award. For more information, visit his website or e-mail him at


Photo of the Week: It's Time to Vote!

The entries are in. Now it’s your turn to select the Viewers' Choice Award for our 2012 Save the Bay Photo Contest! Below is just a sampling of some of the gorgeous photos submitted this year. Visit our Viewers' Choice Gallery to view all nine finalists and to vote for your favorite. Voting will be open until May 4, 2012 at 5 p.m. EST. The photo with the most votes will win the award and be announced online by May 11.

1.-Sunrise-Tangier-IslandDebSnelson-600The crab shanties of Tangier Island are gradually illuminated by the soon-to-rise sun, creating a beautiful pink sky. Photo by Deb Snelson.

Autumn-Clouds--AnnetteConniff-600Autumn clouds frame the dock at Marshy Point Nature Center on Dundee Creek near the Gunpowder River in Baltimore County, Maryland. Photo by Annette Conniff.

Lower-Pond_ALT3815MichaelAlthaus-600Evening reflects on the lower pond near Hedgesville, West Virginia. Photo by Michael Althaus.


Cheapeake Born: The skinny on the Bay's decline? Our unhealthy appetite for fertilizer, fuel

  PC 0594A pond and its wildlife suffocated with algae. Photo by Thomas McDowell.

For insight as to why we’re having trouble restoring Chesapeake Bay, I’m reading “The Evolution of Obesity” by medical researchers Michael L. Power and Jay Schulkin (Johns Hopkins Press, 2009).

It’s an illuminating look at how we got so fat. It’s epidemic—more than a fifth of the world’s population is overweight or obese.

In the United States, obesity-related health problems are soaring. The standard revolving door has gone from six to eight feet, and hauling our ampler butts costs airlines a quarter billion more in fuel than it used to. The proportion of normal weight Americans is at an all-time low.

But what’s a fat book got to do with the state of Chesapeake Bay? Around the world, coastal waters have gotten fat. “Eutrophic,” or overfertilized is the technical term, from the Greek for well-fed. Dead zones like the bay’s occur in more than 40 regions of the world.

It’s intriguing to compare graphs tracking these declines to graphs in Power’s and Schulkin’s book that track the U.S. upsurge in fatness.

Roughly, human obesity and estuarine dead zones both began to proliferate around the 1970s. Mindful that the body is not an estuary, I won’t put too fine a point on this coincidence.

But today’s “obesogenic” environment, as the book calls it, seems to be a useful lens for connecting human ways and the ways of bays.

‘Obesity’s’ authors marshal medical science and evolutionary biology to show how impressively adapted is the human organism to avoid underweight and starvation.

Our bodies can suppress appetite when food is scarce; also become more efficient at maintaining body mass in lean times; and we’re geared big time to glom onto and make the most of “calorie dense” foods full of fat or sugar.

And why not? For all but the last ticks of the evolutionary clock, calories were hard to come by, and calorie burning—physical exertion—was hard to avoid.

Fat was good for other reasons. Human babies are naturally among the fattest of mammalian species, close behind seal pups. The reason appears to be that fat, with 10 times the energy storage of muscle, fuels development of our big brains, themselves about one-third fat.

And fat, up to a point, helps the body fight off pathogens, which became a problem once humans began living in settled communities, close to one another and to animals.

The authors show that we literally like the feel of fat in our mouths. Sugar, too, has always been our friend, so much that a bird in Africa, the honeyguide, has evolved to follow honey-seeking humans to the beeswax it eats.

The bay also evolved elegantly to do more with less. The watershed for thousands of years was thick with forest, bemucked with beaver ponds and other wetlands, resulting in riverflows that were not just clean, but lean in the nutrients that fuel aquatic food webs.

The Chesapeake thrived fabulously on this diet. Its shallowness, its two-layered flows of freshwater riding atop salt, its structures of filtering shellfish and burrowing worms and clams, its vast grass beds that could absorb and rerelease nutrients—all of this and more enabled the bay to retain and recycle, and recycle again whatever food it could get. Think of it like swishing a tasty drink around in your mouth for a long time, extracting all of the goodness.

Both humans and estuaries in recent decades have entered a world that is nutritionally abundant beyond anything they knew. And though well-adapted to cope with less, neither man nor bay ever needed mechanisms to cope with too much—one reason the authors of “Obesity” are skeptical that drug companies will isolate a magic molecule or gene to limit getting fat.

The appetites that have larded today’s humans have sped up the bay’s eutrophication. A diet rich in meat means extensive, intensive, heavily fertilized and fertilizer-leaky agriculture, a major cause of deadzones worldwide.

Even heartier appetites for fossil fuels have fed the bay far too much fertilizing nitrogen via air pollution.

With so much energy available to work for us now, we humans must make an effort to get the exercise that used to automatically burn fat.

While the bay never literally exercised, its wet and forested watershed used to process nutrients far more vigorously, ‘denitrifying’ them back into the atmosphere, or burying them in sediments. Now they just mainline off pavement into the bay.

Nowadays ‘thin’ is in for humans, as ‘green’ is for the environment. Yet the trends still don’t match the images, and may never unless we comprehend where we came from.

—Tom Horton


The above "Chesapeake Born" column appears monthly in the Bay Journal News Service. Tom Horton covered the Bay for 33 years for The Sun in Baltimore, and is author of six books about the Chesapeake. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.


Why Don’t Farmers Just Do It?

The following appeared on field conservationist Bobby Whitescarver's blog. For more information, please visit his website.

Gerald Garber, Shenandoah Valley dairy farmer. He and his partners fenced two and half miles of streams.

Why don’t farmers just do it? I mean fence their cattle out of the streams. If farmers would do this one practice, at least in the Shenandoah River watershed, agriculture would probably be finished with its part of the Chesapeake Bay TMDL.

Excluding livestock from streams is possibly the single most effective Best Management Practice in animal agriculture.

Cows in the stream pollute the water with manure, urine and pathogens.  They trample the stream banks causing sediment to clog the waterways which destroys the aquatic ecosystem.  That’s why the Environmental Protection Agency and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality are pressing farmers to do more.

Many farmers have already done it.  In Augusta County, Virginia for example there are at least 365 farms that have installed stream side buffers.  All of us should be very proud of these farmers because they are the ones that have helped agriculture achieve much of its nutrient reduction goals to restore the Chesapeake Bay.

There’s a lot more to do though and I have heard many say, “I’m not going to do it until someone makes me”.

Gerald Garber, part owner of one of the largest dairies in the valley said, “We all know what needs to be done, we need to do it.”  He added that his cows are healthier and the stream banks have healed since they fenced their cows out of two and half miles of streams.

Excluding livestock from a stream is not rocket science.  Putting up a fence and making water flow into a trough for a cow is pretty easy – it’s the cheapest sewage treatment plant in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

There are federal, state and private funds to help the farmers get it done.  Last time I checked there were eight programs available to help farmers implement the practices needed to make it work for the farmer.

One of the most popular programs in Virginia reimburses the farmer 115% of the cost to do it and pays the farmer rent on the land they fence along the stream.  The rental rate in the Valley is between $90 and $100 per acre per year – more than double what the average rental rate is for pasture in most counties.

So if their livestock would be healthier and they get reimbursed for doing it and they get rent on the land they fence, and we know how to do it, why aren’t the rest of the farmers doing it?

Is it because they don’t want change?  Is it because they don’t want government intrusion?  Is it because they don’t think their cows pollute the stream?  Is it because they aren’t going to do it until somebody makes them do it?  Is it because it’s their land and they think they can do what they damn well please?

It’s all of the above.  And all these issues are social issues not technical or financial issues.  It boils down to attitude and ethics.

When these remaining farmers (and all of us for that matter), acquire the ethic that it’s their responsibility as an owner of land and as a steward of the land, to manage their soil and water resources so that it does no harm to others downstream, agriculture at least will have done its part in restoring the streams in their watershed and the Chesapeake Bay.

—Bobby Whitescarver  

Whitescarver is a recently retired USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) conservationist who spent more than 30 years working with farmers on conservation practices. He now has his own private consulting business where he helps landowners create an overall vision and plan for their land. He also works with CBF to help famers install more Best Managment Practices (BMPs) in the Shenandoah Valley. He is the recipient of a CBF Conservationist of the Year award. For more information, visit his website

Photo of the Week: Weeping Happily on the Potomac

Dc march 27 2010 adam II 301The Potomac River from the District of Columbia looking towards Virginia. Photo by Patrick Armstrong.

I love this photo because of the blues and greens. It shows that beauty exists within the District. The photo was taken on a gorgeous spring day while a friend and I were showing some out-of-town friends the city. What an amazing view! I love showing off the great places that exist in the Maryland/D.C./Virginia area. There is so much beauty right in our own backyard.

 Patrick Armstrong

To view more of Patrick Armstrong's work, visit his Flickr photostream.

Ensure that Patrick and future generations continue to have "so much beauty right in our own backyard." Support the Bay pollution limitsour best hope for a saved Bay. 


Do you have a favorite Bay photo you'd like to submit to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Photo of the Week contest? Send your digital images to CBF's E-Communications Manager, Emmy Nicklin, at enicklin [at sign], along with a brief description of where and when you took the photo and what the Chesapeake Bay means to you. Please also join our Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Flickr group and post your pics to our Facebook page. We look forward to seeing your photos!


Earth Day: "That's All There Is"

EarthPhoto courtesy Flickr Creative Commons.


“Our goal is not just an environment of clean air and water and scenic beauty. The objective is an environment of decency, quality, and mutual respect for all other human beings and all other living creatures.” That’s what U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson said when he launched the very first Earth Day back in the spring of 1970. With roughly 20 million Americans taking part in that first Earth Day—from more than 10,000 schools and 1,000 communities across the country, bringing together all walks of life from housewives to farmers to scientists to students—the event was a bigger success than ever anticipated.

I had the honor of meeting and listening to Senator Nelson when he came to talk to The Nature Conservancy in the spring of 2004, just a year before his death. Though older, frailer, and bound to a wheelchair, Senator Nelson had not lost his impact or might. With quiet conviction he told the story of Earth Day, and why indeed it’s critical we continue to gather together on April 22 every year and raise awareness and appreciation for our environment.

After all, as Nelson said in 1995 on the 25th Anniversary of Earth Day, our natural world and our health and wealth are intrinsically tied together: “The wealth of the nation is its air, water, soil, forests, minerals, rivers, lakes, oceans, scenic beauty, wildlife habitats, and biodiversity… that’s all there is. That’s the whole economy. That’s where all the economic activity and jobs come from. These biological systems are the sustaining wealth of the world.”

And so year after year we have had the privilege of carrying on Nelson’s vision, and this year is no exception. From oyster festivals to tree plantings, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation will be taking part in various Earth Day events across the watershed. Here below is a sneak peak of what you can expect. Please come out and join us! 

—Emmy Nicklin


CBF Earth Day Events