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My farm: Where the field meets the shore

Generation Now: Farmers care about their impact on water quality, and I’m a prime example of that.

Shelby Watson-Hampton

January 10, 2024

4 Min Read
A woman in a boat holding a fishing rod
RIVER RAT: Farmers who produce close to water know their responsibilities to preserve water quality. We are blessed to be such farmers, as our land ends where the Patuxent River starts. Shelby Watson-Hampton

There are farmers all over the U.S. who have working farms that run parallel to a river, lake or tributary — essentially where the field meets the shore.

We are blessed to be such farmers, as our land ends where the Patuxent River starts. 

The farm is terra firma to us in more ways than one. It makes up the very connective tissue that holds our family together, and then the river is the warm lifeblood that pulses underneath. A current of memories, tradition and connection, it runs through all of us — some more than others, maybe — but through all of us.

My great-grandfather was a full-time waterman and tobacco farmer. My father trapped muskrats on the river’s edge to pay for his first car. My first memories with my grandfather are on the water, and two of my cousins still make their living crabbing and fishing today. 

I’ve never looked at the river and thought it was just a river. I knew better from the beginning. 

As children, we inherently kept time not only by the seasons on the land, but also by the seasons on the water. 

Winter meant heavy neoprene waders, duck calls clanking against each other on the string around granddaddy’s neck, and eggs frying in the pan on the propane burner inside the blind, perched precariously on the river's edge. 

When spring rolled around, the fishing rods came back out, catching all kinds of fish and sometimes snaring a blue cat big enough to strain the large dip net. 

Summer was everything on the water. Fish frys, fireworks, family reunions and, of course, crabbing. Chicken necks, bull lips, eel, whatever your bait of choice on the trot line, and beer and tomato mayo sandwiches in the cooler.

Minnows nibbling at our bare feet, the musty basement smell of old life jackets hauled out of storage and the light burn of the old tube smacking across your thighs as the boat hauled it across the waves. 

In the fall, the water flirted with the tree line, taking reflections for a spin and dancing their leaf colors across the surface. Fall meant the last crabs of the season, and the introduction of the “r” months that the old-timers deemed was the best time to eat oysters dredged up from the river bottom.

Fall was a Birmingham painting of contrasting colors across the marsh, with a V of geese cutting across the sky.

The river has seen many of us born and many of us die, and the song she sings is woven into our very DNA. It has, and always will be, this way for those of us who work both the land and the water. 

Farming where the land meets the water comes with its own unique responsibilities though, and in Maryland, we have long been conscious of what farmers can do to help keep the waters clean. Our river is one of more than 150 major rivers and streams that flow into the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the U.S.

With more than 64,299 square miles of drainage basin that touches six states — New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia — and Washington, D.C., the Chesapeake Bay is one of the most productive estuaries in the world. It and its tributaries provide a home to more than 3,600 species of plants and animals. 

Any farmer in this area worth their salt (or their slightly salty brackish bay water) is aware of their responsibilities. It’s why Maryland farmers are working hard to do their part when it comes to helping save the bay.

From working with partners like the Chesapeake Bay Program, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the River Keepers Associations, the Maryland Department of Agriculture, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the Maryland Soil Conservation Districts and others to utilizing best management practices — such as stream buffers, cover crops, crop rotations, sediment basins and more — our farmers are doing their part to help revitalize the bay. 

And it’s working. A recent article pointed out that “between 2009 and 2017, Chesapeake Bay Program computer tracking for the bay showed that nitrogen loads fell 11% from 2009 to 2017, phosphorus loads fell 21% from 2009 to 2017, and sediment loads fell 10% from 8.7 billion pounds in 2009 to 7.8 billion pounds in 2017. Several factors affected the decreases, but scientists note that best management practices by farmers, such as planting cover crops, helped boost water quality.”

Obviously, there is still a lot of work to be done, but it makes me proud to claim my heritage as both a farm kid and a river rat. 

So, the next time you look at a farm that abuts the water, you can take a minute to appreciate the carefully planted fields, the water lapping at the shore and the important riparian buffer that separates the two. 

Watson-Hampton farms with her family on their fourth-generation family farm in Brandywine, Md.

About the Author(s)

Shelby Watson-Hampton

Shelby Watson-Hampton is a farmer, rural writer, and agricultural advocate from Southern Maryland. 

Find her on Instagram @the_farmed_life.

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