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Agricultural News

NRCS Chief Sees Chesapeake Bay Watershed Conservation Project as Model For Broader Efforts

Wed, 25 Apr 2012 15:07:39 CDT

NRCS Chief Sees Chesapeake Bay Watershed Conservation Project as Model For Broader Efforts

The Obama administration has targeted the Chesapeake Bay watershed area for intensive conservation efforts largely to improve water quality. Rapid development in the area over the last 30 years has negatively impacted soil, air and water quality. Although per-acre nutrient and sediment loading is far greater from developed land than cropland, the USDA was tasked with undertaking a program to restore and enhance the quality of the watershed.

That project has largely fallen on the shoulders of Dave White, chief of the Natural Resource Conservation Service. White spoke with Ron Hays recently and explained how he favors a collaborative approach of working with landowners and producers to enhance the health of their lands while reducing the negative impacts of soil and sediment runoff. Administration officials are watching the Chesapeake Bay program closely as a model to be used in other areas of the country.

White sees the Chesapeake Bay project as "ground zero" in the effort to replicate conservation successes to other areas of the country because, "This is the place where we are going to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that the voluntary, incentive-based private land conservation approach is the way to go."

Working with landowners is the key to a successful program, White says. He knows others favor a more heavy-handed regulatory bureaucratic approach which he believes could be counterproductive. That's why he believes it is crucial to enlist the assistance of landowners and producers.

"If we can step up, and we're doing it right now, we're ahead of schedule, ag can do its part to make sure this bay, this estuary, this national treasure is clean and productive. And we can do it in a way where the farmer stays on the land and do it in a way that's economically sound for that producer."

White says that successful conservation programs are cannot be approached with a "one-size-fits-all" mentality. While there may be commonalities between methods employed in one area or another or from one producer to another, there has to be maximum flexibility built in.

"We have the whole suite of conservation practices. Everything has to be tailored to that producer-their land, their soil type, their topography, their farming method, their goals. Cover crops are very useful, terraces, conservation tillage, no till. Those are some of the key practices that we are seeing widespread around here. Fencing out some of the riparian areas-obviously you don't get cows down in the creek. Practices like that are very common."

The EPA and NCRS are two entirely different agencies which operate differently, but they are tasked with working very closely together in the Chesapeake Bay watershed project. White says there are some difficulties in that working relationship, but he believes there are ways to maximize the benefits.

"We all want clean water. We all want clean air. We all want a healthy and productive environment because that is where we all live. EPA is a regulatory agency.   They were set up in the Nixon administration to do that. We're a voluntary agent. We have two different approaches. What we're trying to do very, very consciously, is to work with the EPA. And so far the door's been open and they're receptive to talking to us, they're receptive to listening to us. And they're starting to get a little bit of "pro-aggie" around the edges. So, I'm hopeful we can take our swords and beat them into plowshares-or, rather, no-till drills-I'd much rather work with someone than butt heads against them. If we can make it work here, we can make it work anywhere."

One of the areas that has White excited about what has been achieved so far and what can be done in the future is the area of soil health. He's come to see that it holds great promise for successful conservation efforts.

"I think the whole soil-health movement has the potential to really change how we view the soil and how we farm it. We're talking about always having a cover on the soil. Whether it's a cover crop or a crop, we're talking about soil that is so resilient, where the microbes are so alive they capture the nitrogen and they hold it for you. You have less inputs and you can still make the same yield. Where you can sustain droughts and still keep your yields up.

"If you look at stuff like the climate change we're seeing, that's going to be so critical to our ability to produce food in the future. And we're really launching a nationwide effort to let people know about it."

White says he has gained a greater appreciation for no-till farming methods. He believes that is the key not only to conservation, but productivity and sustainability over the long haul.

"Leave the soil surface undisturbed. Equally key is the cover crops.   When I was growing up in the world you used rye or wheat or something like a cover crop. Now we're looking at six or seven species, they call it a cocktail mix cover crop. Some of our agronomists are looking at what's happening under the surface and calling it rhyzomatic engineering there's so much magic happening there with the soil porosity and the earthworms and the fungi and the bacteria and the beneficial stuff. It really helps hold the soil together and produce our crops better."

White says he has high hopes for what he has learned so far and think it has applications far beyond the Chesapeake watershed.

"I hope it goes globally because we're going to need good soil if we're going to feed this world population that's coming on top of us and still have everything else we want. In the United States we're going to be training our people on it more. We're going to try to start moving this out. Places like Ohio, Indiana, North Dakota are already advancing on this issue and I hope to take it from Maine to Hawaii."

Click on the LISTEN BAR below to hear Ron Hays' full interview with Dave White.


Dave White speaks with Ron Hays about Chesapeake Bay conservation.
right-click to download mp3


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