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Life in the fishbowl: Farming and protecting Chesapeake Bay

david and linda burrier, conservation farmers
David and Linda Burrier
Operating in the public eye, Burrier’s Linganore Farm uses conservation strategies and nutrient management, and won the northeast region 2018 Conservation Legacy Award.

By Dean Houghton

Burrier’s Linganore Farm is named for the narrow and scenic little ribbon of water called Linganore Creek that winds through the land. The stream may be small, but watersheds such as this are under the regulatory microscope when it comes to protecting water quality.

 “We live in Frederick County, Maryland, which is in the central part of the state,” David says. “We can follow the water from the Linganore watershed into the Monocacy River, which bisects Frederick County; that flows directly into the Potomac River, which runs toward Washington, D.C.; and from there, into the Chesapeake Bay. The bay is only about 50 miles away.”

Regulators have pointed to agriculture as the largest source of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, and in 2010, established Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) regulations as a way to restore and protect the Chesapeake Bay and all the rivers and streams that feed into it. The Bay TMDL, set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Water Act, set targets for reduced nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment pollution.

“We have always been motivated to follow good conservation practices and protect water quality,” David says. “I want quality water for my family, and I want quality water for anyone downstream from me. When the TMDL came along, it fortified our commitment to have clean water here, and for our city friends to enjoy clean water as well.”

Life in fishbowl

Living in the spotlight is nothing new for the Burriers. They farm against the backdrop of the Appalachian Mountains, and their farm is in a valley served by two well-traveled roads. “We feel we are in a fishbowl,” Linda says. “We are always very conscious of what people can see. We try to keep our farm looking picturesque, and our landlords expect us to care for their land in the same way.”

All ground that the Burriers farm is classified as Highly Erodible Land (HEL) by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. “This makes our environmental footprint a priority,” David says. One highly visual clue to the family’s conservation commitment is their strip cropping.

“We grow crops in narrow, long strips,” David says. The farm’s 1,800 acres support a diverse mix of crops, including corn, soybeans, wheat, alfalfa hay, and grass hay. “All our fields have a certain amount of slope,” he continues. “Alternating crops in these strips allows us to control soil erosion, control sediment loss, and retain nutrients.”

In non-crop areas, the Burriers have installed and maintain grass waterways and buffers to reduce runoff. “This has been quite successful,” David says. “Some of our waterways are more than 30 years old. And we maintain a grass buffer on both sides of any stream that runs through our land.”

The TMDL also puts the farm under a great deal of scrutiny. “Because of this regulation, we have a mandatory Nutrient Management Plan, and it has greatly increased our record keeping,” David adds. “We have been forced to find new ways to be efficient with the nutrients we apply. We use a software package to determine our nitrogen rates on corn. It’s typical for us to make four nitrogen applications during the growing season.”

Similarly, with a lower Phosphorus Index being phased in under TMDL regulations, the farm has changed to band application of phosphorus instead of broadcast. All nutrients are applied using GPS guidance, which also has helped the farm reduce inputs and increase fertilizer efficiency.

Tweaking the soil testing program also is helping the farm become more efficient in nutrient application. “We soil test every two years using points located by GPS,” David says. “This lets us gain true knowledge of whether we are gaining or losing nutrients.”

The farm’s biggest challenge is to reduce its environmental footprint while remaining profitable and sustainable. “Our goal is zero loss of nutrients and sediment from our land,” David says.

Never-till program

The Burriers rely on a total no-till cropping system, in place for more than 20 years, that the family refers as a “never-till” system. “Any time there is not a crop growing, we plant cover crops to keep the nutrients and soil intact,” David adds. “We want our soil bacteria to have something to feed on at all times.”

Cover crops became a focus for the farm starting about 10 years ago. “It complements our cropping system,” David says.  “We’re seeing organic matter increase very slowly, but it is increasing. Our soil tilth is improving as well.” Winter wheat is a regular part of the farm’s crop rotation, providing cover-crop services for those fields. Oilseed radishes and oats are drilled into soybean fields that are harvested early; cereal rye is drilled into harvested corn fields. The Burriers also are exploring cover-crop cocktail mixes that provide additional benefits, such as producing nitrogen for a subsequent corn crop.

 “Our next step is to work on boosting microbes and other life in the soil,” David says. “Every year when I come along at harvest, I want to see all of that previous year’s crop stover eaten up and not remaining on the soil surface. That way I feel we are getting total use of the organic matter, both above the ground and below the ground.”

Reaching out

Because the Burriers live in a fishbowl in a highly urbanized area, they find themselves reaching out to represent agriculture. Linda is a member of CommonGround, a web-based effort that helps farmers engage in conversations about how food is grown. She shares personal experiences, as well as science and research, to counter myths and misinformation surrounding food and farming. Linda also is active on a variety of social media platforms.

The farm’s close proximity to the nation’s capital also presents an opportunity to speak out for agriculture in the political arena. “David and I are located only an hour from Washington, so we often are called to testify on behalf of agriculture,” Linda says. “Politicians far removed from farming need to hear what the farmer has to say. We are such a small percentage of the population, but we need to have our voices heard.”

The Burriers tell their story about how they protect soil and water, and how they also provide a wildlife sanctuary in the middle of a large section of farmland. Grass buffer strips along streambanks not only stop sediment, but provide nesting areas for birds. Planting wildflowers around farm buildings encourage pollinators to visit. The farm even landscapes around its grain system to reduce noise.

It’s a mindset that has been in place on the Burrier farm since it began here in 1962. “Dad

had a saying: ‘If we lose a shovel full of dirt, we will never regain it in our lifetime’,” David recalls. “That thought has always motivated me. We want to save every pound of soil we can, and also improve the quality of that soil. We have another generation coming on, and if we can instill that in our next generation, our farming operation will be sustainable for a very long time.”

TAGS: Soybeans
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