Delmarva Farmer

Let’s care more about lawn care (Editorial)

Since the dawn of mandated nutrient management in the Mid-Atlantic region, the sentiment in the farming community that residential citizens, and more specifically their lawns, are a significant but largely unchecked source of nutrients impacting water quality has never strayed far from famers’ minds.
The comments pop up in coffee shops, farm meetings, hearings and anywhere else the topic of what’s needed to “save the Bay” or other impaired water rises.
“What about all these developments with everyone competing to have the greenest grass?” someone eventually says. “Who’s making sure they’re following the rules?”
Heads then nod up and down in agreement or side to side in dismay.
The sentiment bubbled up recently for Charles County, Md., farmer Russell Shlagel when he went to a Home Depot store in February and saw a sign overtop of bags of fertilizer telling customers to “Apply This Now,” still within the state’s blackout period for nutrient application.
“How come the farming community has so many requirements and rules that we need to follow and yet there’s no cooperation from our corporate partners?” He asked. “Somebody’s supposed to be educating these homeowners, making them aware.”
A spokesperson from the home improvement chain later clarified that the sign’s direction to “Apply this Now” was paired with another direction saying, “Apply this Next,” indicating steps in a process, more than time of year to apply.
Both instructions pointed to two different lawn treatment products that were to be used in succession. The sign is posted in stores nationwide, but the spokesperson said Home Depot plans to change it for Maryland locations in time for next year’s fertilizer blackout.
“We do understand it could create confusion in Maryland, and we never want to imply that customers should be applying during the blackout period,” she said.
No law prevents retailers from selling or advertising fertilizer during the winter blackout, but a Maryland Department of Agriculture spokesperson said the agency is planning additional outreach for homeowners and businesses, including big box stores, to educate them about the state’s restrictions.
In this and similar cases, better signage would help. A posted alert of the dates when application is banned would likely be sufficient for much of the public who are unaware of the law.
An additional measure would be banning the retail sale of nitrogen and phosphorus products during the blackout. While there is some precedent for that in Maryland, which bans phosphorus in detergents, amassing the political will for that — even here — would be daunting at best and potentially trigger more over-application at other times of the year.
In Delaware, there has been ongoing discussion about a possible state bill to expand the state’s Nutrient Management Commission’s authority over lawn care companies regarding nutrient application.
The current threshold for a company to fall under the commission’s jurisdiction is 10 acres of cumulative lawn management, but there are many smaller companies that fall under that amount and the bill would seek to create parity in fertilizer stewardship between farmers who are certified in nutrient management and homeowners hiring out their lawn care.
At the commission’s March meeting, Delaware Agriculture Secretary Michael Scuse said something to better oversee the nutrient application on lawns is “20 years past due” as “agriculture has done its part” to reduce the nutrient load in runoff and groundwater.
The trends in both states are clear: The amount of farmland is going down and the number of lawns created through development is going up. In Maryland, it’s closing in on a million acres, almost half of the amount of farmland in the state.
Scuse and any farmer irked by this issue is right to call for better balance in oversight regarding residential lawn care.
But with land in residential lawns chopped up into millions of little pieces, the challenge to first pass, then fund, then enforce regulation, remains high.
Legislators won’t have the taste for the same type of measures a farmer has to adhere to in certification, inspection, continuring education and the like. But in space between that and nothing, a reasonable solution exists and needs to be uncovered.
It’s not the increased regulation that the agriculture community wants necessarily, but the fairness and accountability it would bring to the responsibility we all share to improve our waterways.

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