nutrient management laws and piles of paperwork

Illinois soybean growers traveled to the Delmarva region — Delaware, Maryland and Virginia — in 2015 to see how Chesapeake Bay farmers were adjusting to tighter nutrient management laws and piles of paperwork. 

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — Like today’s parents might dangle the threat of taking electronics away if kids don’t do their chores, some people see the threat of mandatory nutrient management regulations around the Chesapeake Bay as motivation for Midwest farmers to achieve success with practices.

So Trey Hill, a corn, wheat and soybean farmer from the Chesapeake Bay watershed, surprised some Illinois farmers when he said, “I enjoy farming in Maryland.”

Some farmers attending the Illinois Association of Drainage Districts annual meeting in Bloomington Jan. 18 were expecting Hill to lead off with what a hardship following the regulations can be. Instead, Hill said they can be challenging, but they are also manageable.

He farms 10,000 acres with his father, with an average field size of just 40 acres.

“We have more regulations, and it is a challenge,” he said, but “we’re making more money than we were.”

Initial reluctance

They have practice making it work. Some of the regulations have been in effect for more than two decades.

Major concern about the water quality of Chesapeake Bay started with a big fish kill in 1989.

“A lot of farmers said it wasn’t their responsibility,” Hill said.

But eventually more farmers started to realize “we are part of the problem — not all of it, but part of it,” he said.

Hill asked meeting attendees if they thought Illinois farmers were part of the problem with hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico. Many nodded “yes,” others shook their heads “no.”

Voluntary actions were the first response to the water issues in Maryland. Some farmers were against accepting a role in the effort and didn’t participate in 1996-97, when Hill was fresh out of Purdue University in Indiana. He said he had studied in the Midwest to learn from the strong agricultural presence here.

But by 1998, the programs were no longer voluntary. For more than 20 years now, Maryland farmers have been required to get state-certified nutrient management plans.

“At the time it seemed horrible,” Hill said.

New regulations banned fall tillage and fall-applied anhydrous and included stringent rules for using poultry manure as fertilizer.

It was “overwhelming” at the time to meet the requirements, and it came with a mountain of extra paperwork, Hill said. The main nutrient management plan needs to be updated every three years. He hires someone to do the soil testing required for the paperwork, but that also helps with his productivity.

The Hills also do their own grid sampling, which isn’t included as part of the plan but helps their farm be more productive.

He said technology makes meeting requirements a lot easier. When some environmentalists ask why they didn’t make changes sooner, he explains that the technology wasn’t there to do what they can do now with variable rates and other forms of precision farming.

The first batch of regulations mostly targeted poultry farms to reduce phosphorous. More regulations were added in 2011 and 2016 affecting more farmers. It seemed to farmers that the finish line kept moving, Hill said.

Initially that irritated him, but he said now he looks at it the same way he looks at trying to get higher yields year after year.

“They want the water cleaner every year,” he said.

The challenges to farming continue.

“Every year there is anti-atrazine bill. Farm Bureau has to fight it every year,” he said.

Other times they may rally around a young farmer when they believe the environmental group River Watchers have sued him unfairly. He said it is important for farmers to be on water-quality committees so they can bring their perspective.

Incentives offered

One difficulty for Maryland farmers is competing with farmers in other states that have fewer regulations, including neighboring Pennsylvania. Rules concerning livestock, for example, are much tougher in Maryland.

Maryland farmers are also competing against farmers in the Midwest and South America, he said. In turn, they get some compensation for meeting requirements in the form of assistance to grow cover crops, for example. They are paid $55 per acre to grow cover crops. Illinois farmers in the group estimated it costs between $10 and $50 here, so they would make money with that funding.

Farmers in the audience wondered aloud where state funding would come from in Illinois.

Hill said the taxpayers in Maryland share the burden of growing cover crops, but when they drive by farms, they see the green and notice difference.

“It leaves a good impression,” Hill said.

Poultry farmers also get some assistance in transportation costs as they must truck manure farther. Some of those costs are paid by Perdue and other large poultry companies as part of the cost of doing business there.

Environmentalist-farmer

Hill said he is a strong believer in soil health and plants his cover crops into green crops, a practice that raised some eyebrows but works for him. His first test brought 270 bu./acre and he continued to expand the practice. He believes he is doing well with erosion control but early testing hasn’t shown as much of an increase in organic matter from using no-till, cover crops and other management practices, as he had hoped.

In 2018, his part of the state was inundated with 72 inches of rain compared to a usual 40 inches. He could see that his conservation practices did make a difference with erosion and water control in an extreme year.

Lial Zeedyk, a Bloomington area farmer, said hearing Hill speak of his efforts with cover crops was of interest to him.

“I appreciate what a challenge cover crops could be,” he said, having seen a few farmers struggle with the practice in central Illinois. Zeedyk, who has been considering growing cover crops for a while, decided he will try some.

He notes that attitudes and technology keep changing. Zeedyk recalls when a moldboard plow was seen to have a lot of benefits in the past. That technology has changed said the Central Illinois farmer like so many things have since his father was born 1918 at a time when horses pulled the equipment.

Hill acknowledged that some of the practices he uses on his farm, may not translate to the field size, soil types and established practices of the Midwest. His corn system includes applying 25 percent nitrogen with the planter and sidedressesing the rest with no fall application.

As his farming techniques have changed, Hill said it allows him to use less lime, and he may be able to reduce other nutrients.

Hill calls himself an “environmentalist.” Several hands in the group of farmers went up when he asked if others saw themselves that way. He said he more often got a seat at the table in discussions and could also see both sides when he got more involved.

But he said farmers must be sincere in that proclamation, and they will be judged for it. You must “walk the walk,” he said.

When the regulations took effect in Maryland, most farmers there didn’t need to make major changes to comply, he said.

“Five percent did. That’s probably a good thing,” he said.

Phyllis Coulter is Northern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.