One Farm, One Bay, One Big Difference

Video by Eric Osman and Sumner Byrne

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It looked like a scene out of the musical "Oklahoma." Tom Linthicum, owner of Seneca Ayr Farms, drove us up the gravel road to his farmhouse in Maryland. The bright November day made the recently harvested soybean fields glow and sway, his green-roofed farmhouse perched above with a dog asleep on the porch. I kept expecting farmhands to burst into song.

“Looks old, doesn’t it?” He grinned at us. “It’s a trick. I built our house as an exact replica of the one I grew up in, back at the old farmhouse.” 

Tradition runs deep in this family: in architecture, profession and values. Tom is the seventh generation of his family to farm here, and continues to practice their most valuable lesson:

“If you take care of your land, the land will take care of you.” 

Three Steps To A Cleaner Bay

Because of this, Tom has installed Water and Sediment Control Basins, or WASCoBs, to reduce farm runoff, along with several other drainage techniques. With almost one quarter of the Chesapeake Bay’s area now devoted to agriculture, an estimated 8.5 million acres of farmland (about the same as two New Jerseys), the industry needs more Linthicum family values: a whopping But there is hope that new legislation will turn Tom’s practices into law. The recent Bay restoration plan placed unprecedented limits on the amount of pollution, mostly sediment and fertilizer chemicals, that states in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed could release into their water. The EPA then worked with these states to make it happen. This meant dramatic reductions in Bay pollution that could solve the spiraling crises found in the water.

Stop Runoff, Save The Bay

But not even two weeks later, the American Farm Bureau Federation and the Fertilizer Institute were garnering support from 21 other states to oppose the new plan, saying it was an overstep of the EPA’s power and a misrepresentation of the improvement and data around the issue. In fact, the two organizations have led several initiatives against the EPA with accusations like this. If the EPA sets limits that are higher than needed, farms could spend a lot of money trying to reduce runoff, and fertilizer sales would plummet as they tried to comply to the new rules.

The Pennsylvania courts dismissed it, since the states the laws applied to had agreed to them. But the Fertilizer Institute is still fighting it today.

Now, here’s the thing: these 21 states that oppose the bill are not the seven that these laws apply to. So to me, it doesn’t make sense that they’re the ones who could get these new laws overturned. If they succeed, it will be a huge step back for the people of this Watershed who rely on the deteriorating Bay for their water and commerce.

Standing on Tom’s porch, I watched the expanse of soybeans sway around us in the chilly breeze. This feels like such a simple, peaceful life. Maybe that’s what makes the bitter fight raging over its practices so jarring. But no one seems to know that the fate of the Bay rests on a few debated laws and the good intentions of farmers. At any point, those laws may go away.

Tom is doing his part to clean up the Bay. But who’s to say that every other farmer would follow his lead without incentive? I’m afraid of the answer and what it will mean for this region. 

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