Sustainable farmer finds Chesapeake regulations to be unsustainable
I get so tired of the almighty dollar dominating our society that I sometimes forget: While the sustainable world we environmentalists seek is about so much more, economic sustainability is crucial.Welcome to the gray, if not the dark side, Tom. . .
Which brings me to farmer Ted Wycall of Greenbranch Organic Farm on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Wycall's delicious food is a beacon of hope in a landscape of industrial farming with its impacts on bay water quality.
His little farm store hums with customers glad to pay more than supermarket price for the food, for the earth. Wycall had planned to expand, in this, his seventh year of farming the land he inherited from his grandfather.
But recently, with frustration and some bitterness, he said he is close to moving to Montana, where he went to college, where "there are almost no rules."
Rules have hammered farmer Wycall recently, thwarting his expansion, locking him in to a future, as he sees it, where the living he's barely making is "all I'll ever have."
Ironically, the rules are those we environmentalists labored to pass to restore Chesapeake Bay: requiring cleaner septic tanks, less stormwater runoff and a halt to the buildup of phosphorus in farm fields.
Ted's plan was to increase sales and production to boost his income. He would have moved his 54-foot-square market onto 60 acres that link his farm to a busy road, where more customers would stop.
But highway officials said he'd have to spend $50,000 for a "deceleration lane" for his roadside market, never mind that nearby crossroads don't have any.
He could avoid that by running an access drive off a side road, but the impervious surface of that driveway, plus that of his market building, would entail stormwater pollution expenditures of more than $20,000, plus weekly paperwork he has no time for.
He'd actually be removing more impervious surface (old farm buildings) than he'd create; but because those buildings predate stormwater regulations, he'd get no credit for that, the Maryland Department of the Environment confirmed.
A state-of-the-art septic tank to handle wastes would be $15,000 or more. They can be built for much less, but regulations require such systems be certified.
Ted's requests to substitute a waterless, composting toilet were rejected by the county.
So was his argument that new greenhouses he needs to expand on his current farm be exempted from stormwater rules.
He also fears being stymied from spreading the composted leaves from his woods to build his soil's organic content by proposed rules limiting phosphorus in farm soils. His soils test high in phosphorus, a legacy of commercial chicken farming by his grandfather.
"But my land is flat and so well-drained that there's no standing water, let alone runoff even after 6– to 8-inch rains. Regulations should target pollution effectively, not crush people like me."
I'm not about to endorse making Ted a poster child for trashing these rules. I support every one of them.
But his shaky economic situation should give us pause. If we want what Ted offers, it will take more than shopping green.
It will mean working through unintended consequences of our regulation.
As for Ted, he will soon have to sell his new land, which ironically could become a seven-unit housing development under local zoning that is allegedly designed to protect farming.