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!


  1. Woah! Look at that building! Did you guys build that this summer? Heres to incentives for environmental sustainability. Hope you and Will have had a great summer!

    -Paul T.

    1. Hey Paul,

      Ben Miller put that up for us this summer - you need to stop by sometime and check it out!


  2. Thanks Kent, very insightful. May we share your story on our FB page to educate our farmer market goers?