From Osprey to Farm Fields, Spring Is Here

Will ‘tweaking’ help shrink the Bay’s dead zones?

The osprey is in.
    Promptly on March 15, the first osprey appeared in my part of Bay Country, no doubt hungry and tired after flying from as far away as deep in the Brazilian Amazon. Fast, determined birds can make the trip in as little as a week.
    Pussy willows are fat catkins. Weeping willows are chartreuse with life. Crocuses, daffodils and forsythia are screaming the yellow message of the returning sun. Earlier warming Washington, D.C., is pinking with the first cherry blossoms.
    Mother Nature’s irrepressible spring flurry has gardeners and farmers working hard and fast to keep up. On Rt. 2 in Davidsonville, I watch farmer Shawn Sizer of Sizer Farmstead fighting a running battle against March winds for control of plastic sheeting on his low greenhouses. So far, the wind is winning.
    With such energy abundant, it’s not hard to imagine Ceres’ impatience at waiting for the vernal equinox to release daughter Persephone from her annual six-month sentence to the underworld.
    Remember Ceres? The Maryland Department of Agriculture sure does. A statue of the Roman grain goddess presides outside, opposite two cows.
    ’Tis the season. Cows and planting dominate two of this week’s stories. The cow of this week’s Creature Feature is the Rev. Bryon Brought of Friendship United Methodist Church, dressed up to reward Sunday schoolers’ contribution of $1,200 to buy two cows to help Third World families achieve independence.
    In this week’s lead story, 1,100 hands plant 60,000 marsh grass sprigs to give the largest freshwater marsh on the Bay’s Western Shore a second chance at life. It’s an expensive rescue that probably wouldn’t have happened had not the damaged marsh happened to be located at Dominion Cove Point, property owned by an energy colossus with an environmental conscience.

    Agriculture, like energy, sustains our very lives. But not without side effects. Chesapeake County was historically supported by farming and fishing. In more recent times, Calvert County in particular has supported national energy needs — with Dominion Cove Point’s revamping of the liquefied natural gas transport station and Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant’s quest to add a third reactor to its two-decade-old pair.

Farms on the Bay
    Agriculture has its side effects, too. Agricultural byproducts — silt, nitrogen and phosphorus — are high on the list of pollutants that must be reduced for Chesapeake Bay to recover.
    Coinciding with First Osprey Day was the release this week of the final report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture of its Assessment of Conservation Practices on Cultivated Cropland in the Chesapeake Bay Region.
    Behind the big title is a deep scientific study of how well farmers are doing in controlling pollutants and what gains can still be made on the 8,400 farms in the Bay region.
    In short, the big study reports that 96 percent of farmed land in the Bay watershed is under some kind of conservation.
    Dave White, chief of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, calls that result “astonishing.”
    The biggest areas needing work are no surprise: nitrogen and phosphorus runoff, culprits in the recent appearance of oxygen-deprived dead zones in the Bay. According to the report, 80 percent of farmland needs some form of improved treatment. That 80 percent breaks down like a bell curve, with about 20 percent each needing lots or little treatment and 61 percent needing moderate treatment.
    “Tweaking” was White’s interpretation of what farmers need to do for their part in restoring the Bay. “Tweaks make it easy to get a big impact,” he said.
    But, he added, “grinding this out” will happen farm by farm, with “a site-specific, technology-based approach.
    “I’m more bullish on the Bay than in the past,” he said at a press conference announcing the result.
    If he’s right, this planting season can be a big one for the Bay.