A Worthwhile Investment in Buffers

A Worthwhile Investment in Buffers

It takes billions of years for wind and water to break rock into particles of soil.
It takes one year for a misguided farmer to plow that soil and let it wash away. Some of our country's most eroded land is also its flattest, the rich soil plowed, exposed, and carried away by water, inch by inch, ton by ton.
The plow is not the only agricultural culprit; cows also release those precious particles of dirt downstream. If a 1000-pound bovine has free access to waterways, then each time she thirsts, she plods down the bank to wade and drink. The weight behind one hoof exerts tremendous pressure, and stream-banks avalanche with every footstep.
It doesn't have to be this way. Thanks to federal and state governments' foresight, millions of farmers have changed their practices and saved the soil and water. Since 1985 when the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) was started, and then updated in 1997 with the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), farmers have enrolled over 39 million acres nationwide. Through financial incentives, the government asks farmers to fence waterways and convert riparian land into permanent forests or grasses. These plants, according to the USDA, "control soil erosion, improve water and air quality, and enhance wildlife habitat," benefits we've witnessed on our farm.
When my wife and I bought our land in 2000, we identified many problems caused by cattle. Along the main stream, sediment filled pools and steep banks sloughed in every flood. Because we had little money, we agreed to let the cattle pasture seasonally for another three years. This worked to fatten the livestock and keep the farmer and us solvent.
But the long-term effects of cattle will mark this land for decades. Every rain funnels soil down the cow paths, and the stream-banks will take years to heal from the cattle's free access to the creek.
Like most farmers, we couldn't afford fencing and planting the waterways without CREP. Our USDA agent advised us on where to develop springs, plant trees, and build 4000 feet of fence. In total, we converted twelve acres from pasture to stream-side buffer, planting 2,600 hardwoods. With government payments, we'll recoup most of our expenses.
The satisfaction doesn't have a price tag. Cattle drink from developed springs which offer healthier water and we've watched mink hunting in thick grass along the buffer strip. We've enjoyed examining each new tree, and the stream flows more clearly, the erosion slowed, the minnows thriving.
The environmental benefits of these programs are well documented. A 100-foot wide strip of forest and grass can keep nearly all the sediment and more than three-quarters of the nitrogen and phosphorus out of the water, according to the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation. That filter strip also provides valuable habitat for wildlife, and one study documented a 46-percent higher nesting success for ducks on lands safeguarded by conservation practices. The study concluded that an additional 12.4 million ducks were added to the waterfowl fall flight as a result of CRP from 1992-1997. I can only imagine so many new ducks filling the sky.
These two programs, CRP and CREP, are not without problems. One, as usual, is lack of money. Though as a nation we've spent billions on these programs, qualifying farmers still get turned down because of lack of government funds. In parts of the Midwest, the demand often exceeds availability by a 3 to1 ratio. Ironically, in our region where the need to control pollution from farm land is critical to the health of our streams and the Chesapeake Bay, the problem is the reverse - the money is there but the farmers are not.
Kenneth Carter, Virginia's Assistant State Conservationist in charge of CREP, said almost 13,000 acres in the state's Chesapeake Bay watershed have been enrolled since 1998. Yet money remains for another 12,000 acres. In Maryland, 73,000 acres are enrolled in CREP, and there is money available for another 27,000. In Pennsylvania 160,000 acres are enrolled in CREP and money is available for another 40,000. The available money will disappear by the end of 2007 unless lawmakers renew the programs in the Farm Bill.
Despite the available money and the strong environmental need for buffers, farmers aren't enrolling, and now with the high price of corn for ethanol, growers are tempted to plow close to streams, till land that should be sod, and un-conserve what should be conserved.
What can be done? If you're a farmer, enroll your eligible acreage and maintain buffers. If you're not a farmer, ask your legislators to renew these programs and increase their funding, for the need for conservation remains great.
Given our current food system, we often forget the vital role of soil and water. Yet if we didn't have dirt, we wouldn't have food.

Jim Minick teaches English at Radford University, writes a column for the Roanoke Times New River Current and is author of Finding a Clear Path, a book of essays. [Distributed by Bay Journal News Service]