Thriving Farms

Agriculture is one of the largest land uses in the Chesapeake Bay region, so it’s no surprise that growing food is also one of the largest sources of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution in the region.  Fortunately, no farmer wants to lose valuable fertilizer and topsoil from their fields, and there are many conservation opportunities to keep these valuable resources on the land.

In fact, many of the region’s farmers lead the nation in the adoption of innovative conservation practices that are win-win solutions for both farmers and water quality because they prevent nutrient loss and soil erosion and reduce the cost of crop production.  No-till farming is a great example. Farmers who use no-till to grow crops rarely if ever disturb the surface of their fields. This approach ensures the soil is always covered.  Over the course of the year, no-till can prevent the equivalent of one to two pick-up truck loads of soil from being washed off an acre of land by rainfall. No-till also saves farmers money by reducing the number of tractor passes required to grow a crop.

To achieve our vision of thriving farms along the shores of a healthy Chesapeake Bay, we partner with farmers and agricultural stakeholders throughout the region to identify win-win solutions and expand their adoption.  When we identify a promising new technology or practice, we help to secure resources so that farmers who are willing to be the first ones to give it a try can do so without losing their shirts in the process. For practices that are proven but not widely adopted, we work with trusted partners to identify barriers to adoption and then find ways to overcome them. And where there are gaps in resources for tried and true practices that are not practical for farmers to implement on their own, we find ways to help get the job done. Below are a some examples of our work:

Reducing nutrient loss from land-application of manure:

Manure is a valuable and commonly used source of fertilizer in the Chesapeake Bay region.  However, it is also vulnerable to being washed into streams because almost all manure and poultry litter nutrients in the region is applied to the soil surface, where rainfall can wash valuable nutrients into streams and rivers.  Surface application also increases the risk that manure nitrogen will be lost to the air, where it can form fine particulate matter – an air pollutant. In contrast, research conducted in the region has demonstrated that manure injection technologies that inject manure below the soil surface can reduce the loss of nutrients by as much as 90 percent compared to surface application.

Of course the flip side to reducing nutrients lost from the land is that more manure nutrients are available to growing crops.  That may mean that farmers who use manure injection can reduce or even eliminate additional application of nitrogen fertilizer later in the season.

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Tim McMichael, owner of McMichael Custom Spreading, with the Vertical Tillage Injector unit paired with a drag hose injection system.  In the first three years of the Maryland Subsurface Application of Manure project, McMichael has encouraged 26 Maryland Eastern Shore farmers to try manure injection on 5,750 acres.

In this video taken on an Eastern Shore farm in Maryland, you can see how a drag hose vertical tillage manure injection system used by Tim McMichael, owner of McMichael’s Custom Spreading, is used to inject manure into corn stubble.  Manure is injected with minimum soil disturbance and after injection,  you can hardly tell that manure has been applied. Not only does this approach reduce potential loss of nitrogen and phosphorus to nearby surface waters, increasing nutrients available for crops, but it also reduces odor.  That’s a win for both farmers and the Bay.

To expand the adoption of manure injection, Sustainable Chesapeake is working with partners throughout the Chesapeake Bay region using innovative financing approaches to encourage custom applicators like Tim McMichael to invest in new equipment and to offer farmers new to manure injection the opportunity to try it at no additional cost.  With funding from the Maryland  Chesapeake & Atlantic Coastal Bay Trust Fund and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, our custom applicator partners have purchased seven new manure injection units and worked with over 70 farmers in the Maryland and Pennsylvania region to inject manure on over 11,000 acres.  Our Extension partners have held four field day events that featured manure injection equipment and highlighted the nutrient benefits of manure injection.

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The Veenhuis manure injection unit, the first commercial unit of its kind operated in the U.S.A, was featured at field day event hosted by University of Maryland Extension and the Catoctin and Frederick Soil Conservation District at DeBaugh Farms in October of 2016.  With funding from the MD Chesapeake & Atlantic Coastal Bay Trust Fund, the Catoctin and Frederick Soil Conservation District partnered with Allegheny AG to deploy the Veenhuis on Maryland’s Western Shore. Over the first three years of the project, partners have encouraged 26 farmers to inject manure on 4,413 acres.

While technologies for injecting liquid manure are well established and ready for widespread adoption, technologies than can inject dry manure like poultry litter are still in the R&D for large-scale commercial systems, and the very early phase of commercial deployment/ R&D phase for experimental or farm-scale units. Nevertheless, the potential environmental and agronomic benefits of poultry litter injection are so high that Sustainable Chesapeake and our partners are committed to demonstrating the value of this approach.

From 2013-2017 Sustainable Chesapeake collaborated with partners throughout the Chesapeake Bay region for the Chesapeake Bay Subsurface Application of Manure (SAM) Initiative to not only expand the adoption of liquid manure injection, but also to develop technologies capable of injecting poultry litter. The United States Department of Agriculture Conservation Innovation Grant Program, the U.S. EPA Innovative Nutrient and Sediment Reduction program, and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation provided support for this partnership effort.  Links to the project fact sheet and report are provided below:

Currently, Sustainable Chesapeake is working with partners in the Shenandoah Valley to build on lessons learned and improve the performance of a farm-scale poultry litter injector owned by Virginia Tech.  With funding from the Virginia Conservation Innovation Grant Program, Virginia Tech has contracted with a local agricultural equipment machinist to make the modifications.  When completed, the unit will be deployed on a farm in the Valley, where the farm’s nutrient management planner can develop a before and after scenario to track how much money in avoided nitrogen fertilizer costs the farmer can save by injecting manure instead of applying it to the surface.

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Machinist and farmer Kenneth Knicely reviews options for modifying Virginia Tech’s poultry litter injector with Richard Fitzgerald (certified nutrient management planner), Dr. Rory Maguire (Virginia Tech, Professor, Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences), and Chris Lawrence (Cropland Agronomist, Virginia NRCS)

Securing over $17 million for on-farm conservation practices:

Sustainable Chesapeake plays a leadership role in the development and administration of regional partnership projects that have secured significant funding to support farmers willing to deploy high priority conservation practices on their farms. In federal fiscal years 2017 and 2018, Sustainable Chesapeake’s and partners have worked with Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware and Virginia Natural Resource Conservation Service leaders to develop proposals submitted to the USDA’s Resource Conservation Partnership Program.   To date, these proposals have been awarded a total of  $17,025,000 in funding for technical and financial assistance that will be delivered to Chesapeake Bay farmers through the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service programs:

  • In FY 2017, Sustainable Chesapeake’s proposal Engaging Small AFOs in the Nutrient Management Process was awarded $4,575,000 in funding for farms in Maryland and Virginia to support the development and implementation of whole farm nutrient management plans on farms in Western Maryland and the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.
  • In FY 2018, Sustainable Chesapeake’s proposal Chesapeake Bay Farm Stewardship and Preservation was awarded $6,080,000 in funding to expand the adoption of precision nutrient management and soil health practices on farms in the Delmarva and coastal plan regions of Virginia.
  • Also in FY 2018, Sustainable Chesapeake partnered with the Pennsylvania Center for Dairy Excellence to submit a pre-proposal that was ultimately submitted by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture and awarded $6,370,000 in funding for Implementing BMPs and CNMPs on PA’s Preserved Farms. 
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Fencing and off-stream watering systems prevent cattle from trampling stream banks and fouling surface waters (photo by Jeff Vanuga, courtesy of the Virginia Natural Resources Conservation Service)

Building Collaborative Teams to Expand Conservation Implementation:

Good yields and farm profits depend on things that farmers can’t control, such as the weather and commodity pricing, as well as things farmers can control, such as how much fertilizer is applied to feed growing crops.  Applying too much fertilizer not only wastes money, but can also increase the loss of nitrogen and phosphorus to surface and groundwater.  Nitrogen and phosphorus are powerful fertilizers for plants that people want (like food crops) as well as plants that cause problems, like overgrowth algae in streams, rivers, and the Chesapeake Bay. Too much nitrogen and phosphorus in surface waters (ponds, lakes, streams, rivers, and the Bay) fuels algae growth.  Too much algae degrades water quality and ruins habitat for underwater grasses, as well as fish, crabs, and oysters. Excess nitrogen and phosphorus in surface waters comes from many sources, including city storm drains, wastewater plant discharges, air deposition (nitrogen), and farm lands.

Many farmers use nutrient management plans as a decision tool to help determine the right amount of fertilizer to apply.  The goal of these plans is to maximize farm profit by reducing excess nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizer application.  At the same time, nutrient management plans prevent the loss of excess nitrogen and phosphorus to surface and groundwater resources.  Because they provide a triple benefit to farm profits, crop production, and water quality, they are recommended for adoption on virtually all of the farmland in the Chesapeake Bay region (95%) and would likewise benefit water quality in Virginia’s Southside region.

However, while many farmers have adopted nutrient management plans, there is still a long way to go to achieve widespread adoption in Virginia. According to the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), the agency charged with implementing Virginia’s Nutrient Management Program, nutrient management plans have been written for 50% of the hayland and row crop acres statewide, and 75 percent of the hayland and row crop acres in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. That’s great progress.  But why aren’t more farmers participating in Virginia’s Nutrient Management Program?

With support and participation from DCR, the Virginia Nutrient Management Leadership Team (VNMLT), a group of agricultural and conservation organizations, state and federal agencies, supported by land grant university crop and nutrient management specialists, convened in June of 2016 to answer this question. As part of this process, they reached out to 73 farmers and 150 industry experts (including 67 certified nutrient management planners) to seek their feedback. Participants were asked to share their ideas for making the nutrient management planning program a more useful tool for farmers with plans, as well as for ways to encourage more farmers to participate in the program. Participants identified both strengths of the program, and areas where the program could be improved.

Based on this feedback, the VNMLT developed a report titled “Recommendations to Strengthen Nutrient Management Plans on Virginia Farms.” The report includes strategies to improve the usefulness of nutrient management plans for farmers, as well as recommendations to encourage more farmers to voluntarily participate in Virginia’s Nutrient Management Planning Program.  These recommendations include practical suggestions that can be implemented without regulatory changes or changes to Virginia’s Land Grant University guidelines, within a reasonable timeframe.

For the VNMLT report fact sheet, click the link below:

VNMLT Fact Sheet

For the full VNMLT (including the Executive Summary, Full Report, and a Summary of Farmer and Industry Professional Feedback), click the following link:

VMNLT Final Report

VNMLT members represent the following organizations:

Agricultural/Industry Organizations: Virginia Agribusiness Council, Virginia Biosolids Council, Virginia Cattlemen’s Association, Virginia Farm Bureau, Virginia Grain Producers Association, Virginia Poultry Federation, Virginia State Dairymen’s Association,

Conservation Groups: Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Headwaters LLC, James River Association, James Riverkeeper, Sustainable Chesapeake, Virginia Association of Conservation Districts

State and Federal Agencies: Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

Land Grant/State Universities: Virginia Tech

Administration and facilitation of the VNMLT were provide by Sustainable Chesapeake (overall coordination) and the University of Virginia’s Institute for Environmental Negotiation (meeting facilitation and assessment oversight and administration)

Funding for the VNMLT was provided by the Virginia Environmental Endowment, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the U.S. EPA Innovative Nutrient and Sediment Reduction Program and The Campbell Foundation.

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Jamie Shenk (photo, left) is the Farm Manager of Beauregard Farms. Located in Culpepper, Virginia, Beauregard farms is a 2,300- acre operation that includes pasture, hay and crop lands that produces cattle, corn, soybeans, and hay. Jamie realized that “fertilizer was one of our input costs that we knew we could improve on.” So, in the fall of 2011, Beauregard Farms hired Tim Woodward (photo, right) from Tellus Agronomics to help identify opportunities to save money on fertilizer. Jamie explains that with Tim’s guidance, they started making “strategic investments in new technology. First, we tackled one problem, then we moved onto the next…The bottom line is that we did this for the economics of it.”

The Farm Manure-to-Energy Initiative: Using excess manure to generate renewable energy and new revenue opportunities for farms

With our Farm Manure-to-Energy Initiative funders and partners, we worked with poultry growers throughout the Chesapeake Bay region to demonstrate and evaluate the performance of thermal manure-to-energy technologies. These technologies use excess poultry litter as a fuel to provide heat for poultry housing or electricity for the grid.  Nutrients are concentrated in the resulting ash or biochar and can be transported long-distances, cost-effectively, to fields where additional phosphorus fertilizer is needed. Participating farms are located in “phosphorus hotspots” of the Chesapeake Bay where the land application of manure contributes to the highest phosphorus loading rates in the watershed.  For more information on the Farm Manure-to-Energy Initiative, including a comprehensive report on the project results, visit the clearinghouse website developed to serve as an information sharing platform about thermal manure-to-energy systems. This video features two of our farm partners and provides a synopsis of the project:

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Mark Rohrer stands by a control panel for a poultry litter-fueled, manure-to-energy system installed on his poultry farm in Strasburg, PA

Our Funders

Sustainable Chesapeake’s funders and foundation partners are critical to helping us achieve our vision for thriving farms alongside healthy local streams, rivers and Chesapeake Bay.  Our Thriving Farms projects are funded by:

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Program, providing resources for the Farm Manure-to-Energy Initiative, our efforts to expand adoption of manure injection technologies, and to achieve regional phosphorus balance in the region.  The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation has provided key leadership necessary to leverage private foundation matching funds necessary to secure federal grant dollars, bring resources needed to implement these project.

The U.S. EPA Innovative Nutrient and Sediment Reduction Program has provided support for the Farm Manure-to-Energy Initiative, the subsurface application of manure project, and efforts to achieve regional phosphorus balance. The U.S. Environmental Protection agency and the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Innovative Nutrient and Sediment Reduction grants program supports efforts within the Chesapeake Bay watershed to accelerate nutrient and sediment reductions with innovative, sustainable, and cost-effective approaches.

The Campbell Foundation helped to launch Sustainable Chesapeake and has been a key funder of our work to bring new technologies to farms in the region (like manure-to-energy and manure injection technologies) and has supported our efforts to encourage collaborative initiatives that bring forward solutions that work for both farmers and water quality.

Virginia Environmental Endowment helped us to launch the Virginia Nutrient Management Leadership Team, a collaborative effort in Virginia to strengthen nutrient management planning efforts on farms in Virginia.

Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bay Trust Fund is helping Sustainable Chesapeake and our partners (including the Catoctin & Frederick Soil Conservation District, McMichael Custom Spreading, Alleghey Ag, the Sassafras River Association, University of Maryland Extension, and 40 dairy farmers as of June, 2017) to expand the adoption of manure injection in Maryland.

The USDA Conservation Innovation Grant Program has provided support our efforts to demonstrate and evaluate the performance of manure-to-energy technologies and expand the adoption of manure injection (dairy and poultry litter) in the region.

The Chesapeake Bay Funders Network led efforts to secure federal funding needed to launch the Farm Manure-to-Energy Initiative. In partnership with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, they provided non-federal matching funds needed to secure federal grant funding through the U.S. EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program and USDA Conservation Innovation Grant Program necessary to fund the project.