When I got married, we held our wedding reception in a barn on land that had been in my husband’s family for a century. The farm had been passed down from generation to generation and actively farmed until the 1980s when my husband’s grandfather retired. And though it had been mostly dormant for years, my husband didn’t want to see the legacy end. So, we did what any sane newlyweds might do — moved in and became farmers.
We decided to raise livestock on our 115-acre farm in Southern Maryland and sell grass-fed meats, mainly through farmers’ markets.
The timing was right. Small farms like mine are experiencing renewed interest from the American public. The demand for local food is growing. People want to know where their food comes from and they desire the transparency that comes with knowing its source.
Thirteen years ago, I didn’t know the difference between a cow and a heifer. Today, I’m far more knowledgeable about the intricacies of agriculture. Conservation is a priority for me. It’s a key aspect of our farm business and we have received awards for our environmental stewardship and soil conservation efforts.
But since 2007, when we moved to the farm, some federal regulations have made things more difficult for farmers like us. In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) implemented a new “Waters of the United States” (WOTUS) rule that allows federal agencies to regulate land features across America that are already successfully managed by local and state governments. The rule went so far as to govern water puddles that may develop after a rain.
The decline of American small farms is well documented. Labor shortages and unstable commodity prices have taken their toll on family farms.
Overall, farmers experienceds a 48.8 percent drop in net farm income between 2013 and 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The number of small and mid-sized farms like mine declined by 3.2% between 2012 and 2017, according to the most recent USDA Census of Agriculture.
Over the past four years, the WOTUS rule has complicated the business and legacy that thousands of small farmers have mindfully built and preserved. Even more worrisome, I’ve seen complicated federal regulations, like the WOTUS rule, discourage younger generations from continuing the family farm business.
This is why I welcomed the September repeal of the 2015 WOTUS rule by the EPA and I advocate for a new Clean Water rule that brings clarity to enforcement of the Clean Water Act. We need a new rule that will clear up the ambiguity and confusion that farmers, ranchers, manufacturers and other small businesses were forced to navigate with the 2015 rule.
We support federal government authority to enforce Clean Water Act standards on actual bodies of water, like bays and lakes, but regulation of land that is sometimes wet, and areas with small bodies of water, should be left to state and local governments, because they know the areas better and are more accessible to the local community.
Under the 2015 WOTUS rule, a potential EPA investigation over a small pond or puddle on my farm, for example, could take years to complete. In the meantime, we wouldn’t be able to make changes to that area of the farm and in some cases, we may be prevented from grazing animals nearby.
Our farm is close to the Chesapeake Bay and less than a mile from the Patuxent River. These are important places to us because our four children play in these waters, we enjoy seafood harvested from the watershed, and our local economy depends on the businesses, industry and tourism that surround the Chesapeake Bay. Rolling hills make our farm picturesque, but it also means there’s a great deal of marshland and ditches that are sometimes dry and sometimes filled with water after a rainfall.
Farmers and ranchers face enough uncertainty — weather, commodity prices, labor shortages, global trade policies, economic trends, and ever-changing consumer preferences. What is and isn’t a “Water of the United States” shouldn’t be on that list.
Thankfully, the demand for locally sourced food shows no signs of slowing down. Farms like mine can better deliver the nation’s food supply with a new Clean Water rule that provides more clarity and strikes the right balance between federal and local jurisdiction of water management.
Jamie Tiralla is co-owner of Monnett Farms in Prince Frederick, Maryland, a member of the American Farm Bureau Federation, and part of the Waters Advocacy Coalition.