Thursday, August 22, 2013

I thought those of you in the D.C. /Baltimore area would appreciate a recent article in the New York Times about Frederick, M.D. and its new place 'at the table' as a food destination:

I am happy to say that we supply vegetables, eggs and meat to all of Bryan Voltaggio's restaurants. 

Bryan is a great supporter of local agriculture and goes out of his way to support local, small farmers like us.

Try one of Bryan's restaurants: VOLT, Family Meal, and Lunch Box - all in Frederick,  or Range in chevy Chase, D.C..

I recommend the burger, shrimp and grits, or fried chicken at Family Meal. The adult milkshakes are pretty awesome too!



Monday, August 12, 2013

'Shaet' does not always flow downstream.

One of the things you hear about a LOT in my neck of the woods is the Chesapeake Bay - well, more specifically, the sad state of the Chesapeake and how no one is doing anything about it.

The Chesapeake has always been an important part of Maryland's local culture, food, and economy.

The word Chesapeake is an Algonquian word, 'chesepiooc', which refers to a village 'at the big river'.

The Chesapeake is the largest estuary in the United States and is home to numerous fragile ecosystems supporting very diverse flora and fauna, including osprey, blue heron, bald eagles, the Piping Plover, and falcon. There are over 300 species of fish and shellfish that call the Chesapeake home including the famous Maryland blue crab and our native oyster.

The flora of the the Chesapeake provide food and habitat to numerous land and water based species. These plants are critical in filtering and oxygenating the water and wetlands that surround the Chesapeake.
A Chesapeake skipjack, unique to the Chespeake and designed to navigate the shallow waters of the Bay.
Skipjacks are rare sites on the Bay these days because of the collapse of the fishing industry due to pollution and overfishing.

Total shoreline for the bay and its major tributaries is over 11,000 miles, holds 15 trillion gallons of water, and has a surface area is over 4,400 square miles.
This is what remains of many of the small communities that used to dot the islands and shoreline of the Bay. What the loss of the fishing industry didn't destroy, erosion finished.
The Chesapeake is a rare and unique body of water. The early settlers found a very rich ecosystem, and they quickly took advantage of this rich food supply. A vigorous fishing industry took hold and an entire culture arose around the Chesapeake that is unique to this unique body of water.

So we've established the importance of the Chespeake from a historical perspective, but how about in today's world?

According to current estimates, the Bay is responsible for over 1 trillion dollars worth of commerce per year relating to fishing, tourism, property value, and shipping. 
  • The commercial seafood industry still contributes over $2 billion dollars of sales, even with its decline in the 20th Century.
  • These economic benefits extend into all regions of the Bay watershed which encompasses 6 states and the District of Columbia.
  • Wildlife enthusiasts spend approximately 3 billion dollars per year in Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania each year.
  • Recreational boating is estimated to generate over 2 billion dollars of commerce per year and create over 35,000 jobs.

The massive Chesapeake Watershed that extends all the way up into New York and south almost to the North Carolina border. Tens of millions call this region home.

So, what are the most important causes of damage to the Bay?

Well, primarily, you are talking about an over-abundance of nutrients, i.e. nitrogen and phosphorus. The excess of these two nutrients over-feeds the Bay, causing algal blooms, choking out plants and waterlife by lowering oxygen levels to critical levels. 

Sediment also contributes to the problem by decreasing the clarity of the water and choking out aquatic life.

The primary contributor to this runoff? Agriculture. 

About 40% of the nitrogen, 45% of the phosphorus and 60% of the sediment currently polluting the Chesapeake is estimated to come from agricultural land.
This is a small dairy operation near our house. In the foreground, a culvert takes the raw sewage under the road and directly into Toms Creek, our creek. This farm is about one mile upstream from our farm.

Other reasons? Primarily development, or sprawl

Of this, 90% is caused by increased land use for low-density residential development. In Maryland, this has produced a rate of growth for sprawl that is 3 times the rate of growth of the population.

Since colonial times, the Chesapeake has lost over 1/2 of its wetlands, 90 % of its underwater grasses, and 98% of its oysters. Blue crab harvests are also down approximately 98 % from their historic levels.

Looking at the Chesapeake Watershed as a whole, between colonial times up until the 1950's, approximately 1.7 million acres of Bay watershed were developed. Since then, another 3 million acres have been consumed by sprawling development.

The City of Frederick and Frederick County's recent support for the annexation of over 300 acres of farmland on the north side of the city, is a fine example of sprawling development. As you can see, this sprawl is contributing to the decline of the Bay and ironically also causing a decline in the state of agriculture in the county as well.
So how does all this relate to my little farm in Maryland?

Our farm is bordered on two sides by Toms Creek (more of a river really), a major contributor to the Monocacy River, the Potomac River and finally the Chesapeake. We are a part of the watershed, and therefore, either part of the problem or the solution!

In May of 2009, after over 25 years of failed efforts by the state governments on the Bay watershed to control run-off, President Obama declared the Chesapeake a national treasure and signed an executive order calling on the Feds to take the lead in the Bay restoration effort.

For the first time, the EPA was given the power to set a more demanding timetable for bay clean-up and power to enforce these timetables.

And Maryland, one of the most important states on the Chesapeake, decided to take the lead in Bay restoration and to set an example for other states bordering the Bay. 

Maryland passed the Chesapeake Restoration Act which:
  • Upgrades 66 waste treatment plants across the state.
  • Creates septic upgrade program which taxes new on-site sewage systems and septic users, the so-called 'rain tax'.
  • Pays for cover crops for farmers to reduce runoff.
Another component of Maryland's efforts to reduce runoff is 90% funding of manure storage facilities for farmers like us. The buildings help reduce runoff from open pit style manure holding facilities, which are the norm for most farmers in our area.

Whitmore Farm is a small operation and yet we still compost about 10 tons of manure and farm waste per year! Our current system has been sorely lacking: open compost piles exposed to the elements. 

I know ... awful!

Before you get too upset, let me show what we do to control runoff on our property:
  • All paddocks are in permanent pasture. This creates a sieve of fine grasses that strain and absorb the nutrients and act as a sponge to absorb the rain water.

  • Each paddock that drains towards the creek has a 'swale' at its bottom that catches and holds water and anything else that runs off the pasture. These areas are heavily planted with trees and grasses, like reed canary grass.

  • Hedgerows! We love hedgerows!

Whenever possible, we plant a wide swathe of dense shrubbery, trees and grasses that capture runoff between paddocks, provide shade for our animals, habitat for wildlife, and even mast (fallen fruit - nuts, fruit, etc) for our animals to eat.

It also generally looks quite pretty as well...

So, thanks to the State of Maryland, we are going from this: this:

...all in the end to protect this:

Toms Creek which borders our property on two sides. 

...and this!

Thursday, August 1, 2013

No frackin' way

Like most people, when I first heard of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking as it has become commonly known, I was curious and suspicious. 

In order to rescue the United States from our dependence on foreign 'dirty' oil, we were going to free the U.S. from the yoke of energy oppression using the 100 year supply of 'clean' natural gas under our feet! Woo hoo!

Now, here was something that everyone could get behind! I mean, who doesn't love a 100 year source of clean domestic energy?

However, the more I read about this technology and the more it has made its presence known in the news, the more horrified I have become about its immense negative environmental impact. 

Interestingly, I also started hearing complaints about new liquid natural gas terminals being planned (we already have 110 in use) to export all this gas overseas. These facilities have a nasty tendency to explode into massive fireballs, so understandibly, they are not popular additions to many coastal communities. I'll explain the importance of this interest in new facilities later.

So, how does fracking work? 

A well head is drilled (and it takes a LOT of well heads to extract the natural gas trapped in the rock bed) and large amounts of water (1- 8 millions gallons per well) laced with 20 to 40,000 gallons of heavy metals and chemicals, are injected under intense pressure until the shale bed 'fractures', allowing the trapped methane to be released and collected. Chemicals used during the process include lovelies like lead, uranium, mercury, radium, ethylene glycol (think radiator fluid/antifreeze), hydrochloric acid, and formaldehyde.

Currently, there are over 500,000 active fracking wells in operation, which are typically fracked ten times or more. Doing some simple math, this conservatively equals about more than 50 TRILLION gallons of water and over 200 billion gallons of chemicals introduced into the ground.

Oh yes...and no more than 50% of the water introduced during fracking is actually recovered from each well. This means that up to 70% of the water and chemicals introduced in fracking are left in the ground. Hmmmm.

Water that is removed is often left in open pits where volatile organic compounds are released into the atmosphere. These are organic compounds that aerosolize and have been linked to many health problems. 

Interestingly, fracking companies are not required to release an exact list of what compounds they use as part of the fracking process. They are also exempt from complying with the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Still feeling good about our new energy policy and all this 'clean' energy?

Okay, well surely the government is watching these guys and making sure they don't mess up, right? Well...actually...the responsibility for policing the fracking companies is primarily in the hands of the states, not the feds. 

And since more recent shake-ups at the EPA as fracking has fallen into the loving arms of our current administration, federal oversight has fallen off even more.

Okay, so its a dirty polluting technology but surely there are fail-safes in to prevent accidents, right? What could possibly go wrong?

Not surprisingly, quite a bit!

One of the first problems is casing failure. Lining each well-head is a metal liner surrounded by a cement casing that is meant to prevent any of the good or bad stuff going in or out of the well from leaking into the surrounding ground. 

Sounds pretty sturdy huh? Well, with an accepted fail rate of 5% per year, the casing on these wells can be expected to fail, and boy do they ever, 50% within the first ten years. This also means that 5% will fail essentially immediately, within the first year of use.

When they fail, some of that methane and the unspecified toxic chemicals under intense pressure are released into the ground water and voila - you have an environment disaster!

'Honey, why is the hose on fire?' 

So suddenly, homes, cities, and farms that use well water for their very existence, have a contaminated water source that is unusable. The whole while, the fracking companies deny culpability and the EPA goes along, hand-in-hand, in denying the dangers, quietly telling people that they probably shouldn't drink that water, 'off the record'.

Now, anyone who lives off well-water is very much aware of how important their aquifer is and also how vulnerable it is. The city of Frederick and my whole rural community is dependent on the same water table/aquifer and we all know that when one person is irresponsible or reckless, we can all suffer.

We could not farm our land without our clean, pure ground water - it is a precious resource. We test our water every year looking for chemicals like pesticides and coliforms, enteric contamination from fecal matter.

Once polluted, there is no way to repair the damage.

Now those of you living in urban areas with access to municipal water may say, 'well this doesn't really affect me'...but does it? 

There are huge sections of the U.S. where many thousands of fracking wells are planned and many of them are in areas of the country where much of our food is grown, or where water is a scarce commodity.

Other important environmental considerations:

1. Huge amounts of energy, roads and other infrastructure needed to build and transport the water and other materials used for fracking.

2. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas some 40 times more potent than CO2. It is estimated that at least 5 - 10 % of the methane captured during fracking leaks into atmosphere. Given its affect as a powerful greenhouse gas 40 times more potent than CO2, that's a lot of global warming and the 'clean' part of the technology goes out the window.

3. Release of methane and VOC's into the atmosphere near fracking sites affecting local air quality, including disulfidesbenzenexylenes and naphthalene.

4. Earthquakes - there is good evidence that fracking has precipitated increased earthquake activity in the American Midwest and Europe. Current fracking operations are underway overlying the San Andreas Fault and many more are planned for the Central Valley of California, again overlying the fault and the so-called bread basket of America.

5. Surface water contamination from runoff and spills related to fracking operation.

Its also important to bear in mind that tens, if not hundreds of thousands more wells are planned over the next decade all across the United States, so this is a problem that will be magnified exponentially and will be affecting millions of people.

Now, two premises of this 'clean' energy bonanza that our politicians have been selling us, is that there is a 100 year supply of natural gas and that this will help control/bring down our energy costs. So let's look at this idea, shall we?

The 100 year estimate of our reserves assumes that ALL areas where suitable shale formations exist can be accessed and sucked dry.

The other consideration is how much industry interest in expanding America's liquid natural gas export capacity there is.

While increasing production of natural gas in the U.S. would definitely lower prices, this assumes that the gas produced would stay in the U.S. 

Considering that prices for natural gas in Europe and Asia are 4 or 5 times higher than they are here, why would these producers choose to sell their products here in the U.S.? Out of the goodness of their corporate hearts?

Let's consider an alternative to this ridiculous and never-ending reliance on dirty fossil fuels - renewable energy sources like wind, solar, geothermal, wave and so on. This seems like a no-brainer to me?

Being a child of the 70's, I remember the oil embargos. You could argue that its has been one ongoing crisis since that time because of our dependence on fossil fuels.

Why not aggressively switch to a new renewable and sustainable energy source, create a strong and high tech renewable energy industry in the U.S. (i.e. jobs), and end our dependence on polluting energy sources for once and for all!

We at Whitmore Farm, believe in maintaining balance and sustainability in every aspect of our lives. We switched over to 100% renewable energy about 4 years ago.

Currently, 50% of our energy usage is produced via the photovolteic system installed on our barn roof a year ago. Since that time, we have captured 35 Kwh of solar energy, saved over $5000 in energy costs, and offset 55,000 lbs of carbon emmissions. 

The rest of our energy usage is bought as wind energy through our local utility company. 

Emmitsburg is also the site of the largest solar installation in the State of Maryland, thanks to an agreement between Mount Saint Mary's University and Constellation Energy. None of this would have happened if the State of Maryland hadn't required a certain percentage of each utility company's energy production to come from renewable sources.

Currently, with the lower cost of photovolteic panels, renewable technology has become comparable and competative to fossil fuels in terms of costs.

While this issue may seem unrelated to my little farm in Maryland (the state currently has a moratorium on fracking) there appears to be a legitimite risk that things may change.

Two years ago, in response to concerns about the safety of fracking and the disasterous problems that have plagued the technology in neighboring Pennsylvania, Gov. Martin O'Malley created the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission.

The commission charged the state Department of the Environment and DNR (Department of Natural Resources) to conduct studies looking into the affects of fracking on the environment.

However, recently the commission begain drafting craft rules on fracking for the state and Governor O'Malley hired John Quigley, former secretary of the Pa Department of Conservation and Natural resources to help in the process. 

Et Voila:

So in the end, I now see this as a major and the latest threat to my little farm and to agriculture all across the country.

If you'd like to know if there are any fracking sites in your area, here is a search tool you can use to check:

In the meantime, I will continue to say 'no' to fracking and 'yes' to renewable energy!