3/23/2013 7:00 AM
By Ann Wilmer Maryland Correspondent
SALISBURY, Md. — The rules governing the conversion of wetlands to cropland haven’t changed but the process has, and farmers will need to build more lead time into getting requests approved.
Nelson Brice, district manager of the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), told farmers at a recent Agronomy Day in Salisbury that USDA is doing things a little differently than in the past.
Last year, they were responding to local farmers, usually by the next day, to look over plots of land that farmers wanted to convert to cropland and advising them if they could go ahead.
“The No. 1 thing farmers need to keep in mind is that USDA needs more notice if they want to stay out of trouble,” Brice said. “We’ve been responding to each request on an ASAP basis.”
New USDA rules require that the NRCS representative coming to the farm to evaluate the wetland status of land not currently under cultivation must come from out of the county or district. Brice will be spending more time on the road to do this, and he won’t be making these decisions for his usual clientele.
NRCS Northeast Regional Conservationist Richard Sims said state conservationists have developed actions plans to implement “separation of duties” for highly erodible land conservation Compliance and wetlands conservation compliance as of Oct. 1, 2011, and Oct. 1, 2012, respectively. All action plans ensure that there is separation between field conservationists and USDA program participants within their service area in conducting determinations, reviews and addressing appeals.
Sims said state action plans were required to meet the following criteria: maintain high-valued relationships and trust between NRCS field staff and their customers; provide the greatest degree of impartiality and integrity; improve quality of determinations and reviews; improve efficiencies in determinations and reviews; and effect positive changes in NRCS conservation compliance processes and procedures.
“State conservationists’ action plans outline specific procedures that ensure consistent and efficient implementation across the state,” he said. “Separation of duties allows local field conservationists to focus on voluntary service and program delivery within their service areas.”
“Nothing has changed about the rules except whose doing it and the time frame — which is the same on paper, only locally they were trying to respond very quickly,” Brice said.
The Feed Security Act of 1985 has been in force for 27 years, he said.
“The hardest part of my job was telling people they could not clear a piece of land,” Brice said. “If you want to be eligible for USDA benefits — and most farmers do — then you must not disturb certain categories of land.”
These include highly erodible land and wetlands, which have value as animal habitat or water quality. Sediment is one of the chief pollutants of clean water.
Farmers sometimes argue that the land on one side of the ditch is exactly the same as the land on the other side of the ditch that they would like to convert to cropland. And Brice doesn’t disagree. He said a retired district supervisor once told him that he spent the first half of his career digging ditches to drain the land and plant crops and the second part of his career filling in ditches and creating wetlands.
Considerations include hydrology. The Eastern Shore of Maryland has a high water table, so agricultural practices are more likely to impact water quality. Of course, Maryland has other rules so the wetlands cannot be touched anyway. If it isn’t the USDA explaining why you can’t bulldoze the trees and cultivate that field, then it may be the Maryland Department of the Environment.
Most of today’s agricultural land on the Eastern Shore consists of hydric soils — characterized by high water tables. If that land was cleared prior to 1985, that’s OK. But much of that “prior-converted” land would be considered non-tidal wetlands by today’s criteria. Occasionally, a farmer may clear land without prior approval. But that’s risky. If, as it turns out, they have gone too far, as measured against wetland criteria, it’s called “swamp-busting.”
“It is possible to rehabilitate that land, but it’s usually pretty expensive and it usually involves restoring more land than was disturbed,” Brice said.
If farmers put highly erodible land in production it’s called “sod-busting.” The only difference between the land on this side of the ditch and that side is prior conversion. As of 1985 that ended.
It’s a matter of changing economics and what society will tolerate. Concerns about the health of the Chesapeake Bay, which is critical to Maryland’s economy, have forced agriculture officials to look at traditional practices and put a stop to some of them.
“The USDA has drawn a line in the sand,” Brice said.
But he points out that all this could change. Society makes the rules. “It’s been a long time since we’ve been hungry in the USA.”
“There’s a reason these laws are in place. The laws are very fair to everybody. I think they’ve got it right,” he said.
So, for now, farmers should start by visiting the Farm Service Agency and “talk about what they want to do — dig ditches, clear woodland, etc. Fill out your 10-26. Then it goes to NRCS for review.”