LANCASTER, Pa. — For farmers, the save-the-bay drumbeat since the 1980s has been all about keeping sediment and manure runoff out of the Susquehanna River and its tributaries.
Local conservation districts and private consultants have kept busy for decades developing farm conservation and nutrient management plans designed to clean up the waters flowing into the Chesapeake Bay.
Those issues took a back seat to on-farm stormwater management at last week’s Ag Issues Forum at the Lancaster Farm and Home Center.
The forums are held regularly throughout the year by the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
One of the two speakers for the July 14 forum was Peter Hughes, who founded Red Barn Consulting in Lancaster in 2001. The company specializes in developing plans to help farmers comply with state and federal regulations.
The other speaker was Jim Caldwell, a group manager at Rettew Associates, an engineering services company with a wide range of clients. His specialty is stormwater management for municipalities.
Caldwell works with Hughes to help farmers stay out of regulatory quagmires, particularly when they tackle new construction projects.
Not too many years ago, a farmer who wanted to add a chicken house to supplement his dairy income didn’t have to worry about stormwater, nor did he have to worry too much about digging, scraping, piling and backfilling the soil that had to be moved to build the chicken house.
Pennsylvania Act 167, passed in 1978, was designed to regulate stormwater runoff in watersheds and mostly applied to developers and municipalities.
At first, agriculture was pretty much exempt from Act 167 regulations, but eventually a farm construction project that disturbed more than 10 acres needed a stormwater management plan.
Then the act was amended to cover a 5-acre project. In 2013, the act was amended again, and all the exemptions for agriculture went away.
Today, if a farmer wants to add a structure that disturbs an acre of land, he needs a stormwater management plan before he can get a building permit from his local township.
Every Act 167 amendment has piled on cost for the farmer who wants to expand. Hughes showed a series of slides that demonstrated that point.
The first was a 63-by-1,000-foot turkey house built in 2004 when the 10-acre rule was in effect. It had a small stormwater retention basin.
The second was a turkey house the same size built when the 5-acre rule applied. It had a bigger retention basin.
The third slide showed a pair of 63-by-500-foot chicken houses. The retention basin built to comply with current regulations is as big as the chicken houses.
Hughes noted that a dairy farmer who wants to diversify by adding a poultry facility could end up having $30,000 invested in engineering fees and land studies before he even approached his local planning commission for a go-ahead on his $1 million-plus project.
And while the construction crew builds a retention basin designed to keep stormwater on his property for 72 hours, that farmer might see his neighbor working a 40-acre patch with a moldboard plow.
Although moldboard plows may eventually join wheat binders on the list of agricultural relics, they are still with us and contributing to pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.
Regulations designed to clean up the bay complicate farming and add to the costs, Hughes said.
Those costs don’t add a bushel to corn yields, another hundredweight to the milk tank or another egg or two to a layer’s weekly output.
Those items have to be considered a cost of doing business, he said, and a cost of cleaning up the water that goes into the bay.
But, he said, “if we used more no-till and more cover crops, and kept the cows out of the streams, we would be much further along in fulfilling our obligations to the Chesapeake Bay.”