Flexible Agricultural Buffers


What is an “Agricultural Buffer” and How is it “Flexible”?

Agriculture is one of two predominant land uses in the Nanticoke Watershed, comprising 45 percent of total land use. Runoff from farms can contribute significant amounts of nutrients to the Chesapeake Bay.  With little forward movement on the Chesapeake Bay Agreement to reduce pollution and protect this ailing national treasure (2000), agriculture has been receiving a lot of attention and the EPA is seeking widespread implementation of “best management practices” to reduce agricultural runoff into the Bay system.    So the Nanticoke Watershed Alliance has implemented a program to study the use of “flexible buffers.”
Buffers are strips of vegetation along drainage ditches that help to capture nutrients before they “run-off” into the ditches after a rainfall. Without any buffer system, agricultural ditches are capable of transporting high amounts of excess nutrients into local creeks and rivers that lead into the Chesapeake Bay. Though in our watershed, many ditches are on lands with prime agricultural soils, making them unattractive choices for planting wide buffer strips that would consume large amounts of productive cropland and ultimately reduces the overall yield and potential income for farmers.
“Flexible” agricultural buffer just means that the width of the buffer strip can be adjusted but does not meet Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) standards.  Our monitoring program will test the hypothesis that any size buffer system is better than none at all.

Program Specifics

The Nanticoke Watershed Alliance, Dorchester Soil Conservation District, and Wicomico Soil Conservation District have been working with farmers in small watersheds of the Nanticoke River system to plant flexible-width buffer strips of native grasses along their drainage ditches. The purpose of this pilot is to gauge the feasibility of providing moderate economic incentives to farmers to plant and maintain a narrower-width buffer where current CREP provisions are difficult to implement.
Throughout the year, the Alliance performs water quality assessment by collecting bi-weekly samples at six sites within one sub-watershed, focusing on the analysis of nitrogen and phosphorous levels that are present in the ditches and river system.  This pilot project uses the same data management and assessment protocol as our EPA-approved Creekwatchers Program that samples water quality throughout the entire watershed to give the overall health condition of the river.
Our Chesapeake Conservation Corps Volunteer, Tyler Walston goes out in the field every other week to collect water samples and measure various parameters at each identified site in the program. This is the first year of the program and it has been extremely successful, engaging 100% of farmers in one of small subwatershed. This area has a high percentage of both crop and animal producers, making this a great template that could be applicable to other sub-watersheds.

Opportunity to Participate

If you are interested in learning more about this program and take a tour of a buffered farm or if you would like to participate in the water quality sampling, we have an opportunity for you…
  • We are looking for a volunteer to be Amanda’s “Sampling Assistant” in testing water quality at the six identified sites near the Marshyhope. This could be a one-day volunteer opportunity to just see what it’s all about or you could commit to testing every sampling period. If you are interested or would like to just get more information, e-mail Amanda Anastasia at amandaanastasia@nanticokeriver.org.
  • You can also come to just one of the sites during a sampling period for a tour of a buffered farm. Enjoy a lovely walk to a wooded forest behind a productive corn field while talking about the issues the agricultural industry and the environment is facing.
  • If you are a farmer interested in finding out more information regarding the installation of buffer strips or how you can participate in this or other relevant programs, contact Dale Brown in Dorchester County at dale.brown@maryland.gov or Laura Human in Wicomico County at Laura.Human@md.nacdnet.net.