LANCASTER, Pa. — Although Donald R. McNutt plans to retire this summer as administrator of the Lancaster County Conservation District, he was anything but retiring at the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s ag issues forum on Dec. 12 at the Lancaster Farm and Home Center.
McNutt said at one point during his presentation that his role as a commonsense buffer between Lancaster County farmers and government regulators has been “a hoot and a half.”
Those regulators, primarily the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, he said, worked with models that sometimes did not take into account real-world conditions.
Pointing out those situations appear to have been the source of most of McNutt’s hoots.
For example, he said the DEP estimates for no-till acreage in Lancaster County show a decline from 3,875 acres in 2010 to 2,409 acres by 2025.
McNutt said he knows of two farmers who probably have almost 3,800 no-till acres between them.
DEP’s numbers are off because the agency errs in its counting methods, he said.
Both DEP and EPA calculate the number of conservation BMPs, or best management practices, based on the number of farmers who receive cost-share money for their implementation.
But many farmers, particularly those in Lancaster County, spend their own money on BMPs. As an example, McNutt cited a meeting earlier in the week where some 400 farmers and ag industry people met for a breakfast conference at the Shady Maple Smorgasbord in East Earl, Pa.
One of the speakers asked the farmers in attendance to stand if they had planted a cover crop — a BMP in most cases — this year.
McNutt said three-quarters of the people in the room stood up, which would have included most of the farmers. Then the speaker asked all who had not taken cost-share money to plant cover crops to sit down.
Everybody sat, McNutt said.
That was one real-world example — with a million pounds of seed and thousands of tractor hours — where BMPs did not register at all with regulators.
McNutt is something of a specialist in a world where realities keep changing. Computers, for example, have changed the way much of the district’s work gets done.
A conservation plan that used to take 40 man-hours now takes 25.
McNutt’s real world can be wildly distorted by popular media,. Watson’s Run, for example, was an area of Lancaster County with Plain Sect farmers who had an abundance of cattle and who were declared in violation of environmental regulations.
The New York Times, Washington Post and other media outlets ran stories saying that 85 percent of the farmers were violators.
McNutt said the real number was 15 percent and their violations were that they did not have conservation plans.
McNutt mediated between the landowners and the regulators to stave off any harsh penalties, but he said that the EPA and DEP will be back to Lancaster County again, and again, and again.
Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts are prompting both agencies to focus on the runoff of nutrients and sediments from farmers’ fields.
McNutt said an important player in the effort is the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. He applauded the foundation for working with, rather than against, the ag community and for encouraging regulators to consider all the factors contributing to the Chesapeake Bay’s ills.
Farmers have been easy targets because plowed fields are highly visible.
Stormwater runoff and wastewater treatment plants also have been recognized targets for improvement from the beginning.
Now, McNutt said, other urban and suburban sources of pollutants and nutrients are coming under closer scrutiny.
Farmers alone cannot meet the 2025 target for reducing the total maximum daily load of nutrients flowing into the bay.
One way Lancaster County could meet that goal would be to have 400,000 of its nonfarm residents move somewhere else, he said, but that is certainly not a real-world solution.
In fact, McNutt said, nonfarm citizens are responsible for the largest and probably most-mismanaged crop in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
“And what is that crop? Can anybody guess?” he asked.
“It’s grass,” McNutt said.