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EPA administrator visits Balmer farm Federal official fields questions about bay pollution mandates; local farms are doing their part
By: CHRIS TORRES Special to the Record, Staff Writer
There is no question Lancaster County is on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s radar when it comes to pollution from farms. And that has many farmers nervous about what the agency is planning to do in terms of enforcement as the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) moves forward.
But EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson sought to change how the agency is perceived within the farming community during an Aug. 3 tour and meeting with several of the county’s farmers.
Jackson made a stop at Jeff Balmer’s farm at 572 Millway Road, just outside Lititz, where she toured the farmer’s dairy facilities and met with local farmers and agribusiness people.
The tour was organized by the Lancaster County Conservation District and state Sen. Mike Brubaker, and has been in the works for at least a month, according to Don McNutt, manager of the county conservation district.
Jackson was originally scheduled to tour three farms, including the Brubaker Farm in Mount Joy and Oregon Dairy near Lititz, but a last-minute Cabinet-level meeting called by President Barack Obama cut her time in the county to just under two hours.
She spent 45 minutes touring the farm and talking with its owner.
Balmer, a third generation farmer, gave Jackson a taste of some of the things he has done to improve manure and nutrient management on his farm,
Four years ago, he installed a new manure pit, which enables him to store manure up to eight months rather than the two weeks his old pit allowed. He’s also made several other improvements to the barnyard to better handle the manure from his 115 head of Holsteins and Guernseys.
Balmer has entered into a partnership with Warwick Township, where his farm is located, in which the township pays for such things as soil testing and weed scouting in exchange for access to Balmer’s land-management records.
One of the township’s wells is on Balmer’s farm, so officials have a reason to want to help him out.
He said he plans on installing a robotic milking system by next year and is looking to double the size of his herd.
After the tour, Jackson sat down privately with about 30 farmers, including a handful of Plain Sect farmers, and some agribusiness people to hear what they had to say about the TMDL and EPA regulations in general.
McNutt said farmers expressed concerns over the cost of environmental permitting and regulation. But he said Jackson was open to the idea of more flexibility on farms and that farmers are moving toward doing the right things.
"The administrator was aware that there was a need for flexibility, so that was good to hear. She understood that in Lancaster there are a lot of people moving forward on the right things," McNutt said.
EPA has faced a lot of criticism from the farming community since it finalized the Chesapeake Bay TMDL late last year.
The American Farm Bureau Federation along with the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau sued the agency earlier this year and have questioned the science behind the TMDL.
The plan calls for the six states within the watershed, as well as the District of Columbia, to put in pollution controls to cut down on the nutrients flowing into streams and rivers that feed the bay.
All pollution controls have to be in place by 2025, with states having to meet various two-year milestones along the way.
The agency has also been flexing its enforcement muscle in Lancaster County, especially in the southern part of the county where Plain Sect farms in the Watson Run and Muddy Run areas have been targeted for inspection and possible future enforcement action.
Jackson said that hearing from farmers helps her understand the kind of impact the agency is having on farm communities.
"My goal in these roundtables is to speak much less, listen much more," Jackson said.
She said the tour gave her an appreciation of the kinds of things farmers are doing to better manage pollution.
"It’s not easy to farm. It’s not easy to do this with all of the pressures on farmers today," she said.
But she added that some of the things she saw, including putting in crop rotation and just managing the land better, are things all farmers can do.
"It’s how you look at land and do relatively simple things," she said.
When asked if there was a message she wanted to send to farmers skeptical of complying with laws, Jackson said they need only talk to other farmers that have seen success.
"Talk to those who have already done it … It is your obligation. It is the law," she said.
For Balmer, getting the top EPA official on his farm is a way to send the message that farmers are doing good things, even if the data has yet to account for all the good practices.
"Too often, the only stories you see in the papers (newspapers) are negative environmental stories," he said. "I want her to see some of the positive things going on the farm." More EPA VISIT, page A7