Global ag leaders see how Maryland farmers use land-based tools to benefit waterways

May 11, 2023

The concept of “From Land to Sea” is personal to Shelby Watson-Hampton. She and her husband, Wade, along with their family business partners, operate Robin Hill Farm and Vineyards. They grow grapes, make wine, and host events and agritourism opportunities in Southern Maryland. Their farm sits along the Patuxent River, which runs into the Chesapeake Bay watershed, the largest estuary in United States and the third largest in the world. While she and Wade work the land, they have family members whose livelihoods depend on the water as fisherman and crabbers. And, of course, they know the value of clean water for all of life.

“The river is a precious resource to us,” Watson-Hampton says. “Nothing is perfect, but we try to be as regenerative and sustainable as possible in all our farming practices.”

Clean water starts on the land, a responsibility Watson-Hampton and her family take seriously on their farm. As part of a special side event of the AIM for Climate Summit today, Watson-Hampton shared how her family manages water in ways that benefit both their economics and the environment.

The event, “From Land to Sea: Managing Natural Waters to Advance Global Sustainability Goals Under Changing Climatic Conditions,” was co-sponsored by Solutions from the Land, the Foundation for Food and Agriculture (FFAR), the Harry R. Hughes Center for Agro-Ecology and the University of Maryland College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Often Solutions from the Land travels the world to bring farmer voices to international conversations on climate change and sustainable development, but, in today’s event, SfL brought the conversation and global leaders closer to home—straight to the farm.

More than 50 international government officials, NGOs, and agriculture and conservation supporters attended the event. They stepped away from the AIM for Climate Summit in Washington, D.C., and onto a bus that took them to the University of Maryland’s Wye Research and Education Center in Queenstown, Maryland, a 1,000-acre agricultural research station known for its Angus cow herd, right on Maryland’s iconic Eastern Shore. There, participants saw first-hand how Maryland farmers and agricultural partners are collaborating to sustainably intensify production, adapt and improve resilience in the face of climate change, and reduce or sequester greenhouse gases while concurrently delivering important ecosystem services.

Agricultural water management and practices that protect and enhance the Chesapeake Bay, one of the most productive estuaries in the world, was a special topic for the day.

During a farmer panel, Watson-Hampton highlighted how her family works at being good stewards of water on the land. They:

  • Collect rainfall from the rooftops of their barns using a drain-pipe system that allows torrential stormwaters to run into an overflow pond, not down the hill to erode the soil and damage roads and other infrastructure.
  • Invested in an ozone generator, which allows them to clean their farm- and wine-making equipment without the use of harsh chemicals that could pollute waterways.
  • Monitor moisture levels, temperatures and other data using an on-farm weather station.
  • Plant cover crops between rows of grapevines and buffer strips around the farm to benefit the soil and water infiltration.
  • Minimize use of pesticides and follow an overall nutrient management plan.
  • Further improve soil health with compost made from grape skins, seeds and stems, and from horse manure.
  • Encourage recycling and waste reduction overall on the farm: Instead of traditional cork for wine bottles, they use Nomacorc, which is made from a byproduct of sugarcane production and reduces spoilage. They also work with a local craftsperson to turn wine bottles into a holder for soy-based candles and use wine-tasting scraps to feed their family’s egg-laying hens whenever possible.

“We do the best we can,” says Watson-Hampton, who spoke alongside fellow farmers Hans Schmidt and Lindsey Thompson.

Watson-Hampton notes changes in climate have created new challenges for agriculture. The grape harvest has come earlier every year due to warmer weather. Crops were damaged during an unusual hailstorm last spring and after unexpected, late freezes the past two years. Spotted lanternflies and other insects benefit from earlier springs and longer summers, creating increased pest pressure on grapes and other crops. 

She points to a need to recognize the many nuances of agriculture. The U.S. is diverse in terms of microclimates, markets, and opportunities, meaning there can be no one-size-fits-all approach to farming. Farmers need choice and enabling, not prescriptive, policy.

“Big doesn’t mean bad and small doesn’t mean better in agriculture,” Watson-Hampton says. “It’s all in how you address what you have on your property. People have dedicated a lot of their life to diversifying their businesses and their farming models to best meet the needs of the land and the microclimate in their area.”

Labor, markets, technology, and innovation are also needed.

“There’s a lot on the forefront of this [technology] frontier that can be used to get us back to a more regenerative, sustainable model,” she says.

Solutions from the Land is committed to bringing people from all walks of agriculture together to share perspectives and identify areas of opportunity that would support farmers, ranchers, and foresters in delivering land-based solutions to the world’s greatest challenges—including the need for clean, abundant water. These “uncommon collaborations” are crucial for building on agriculture’s capacity to restore ecosystem functions and biodiversity, reduce vulnerability to extreme weather, combat climate change, and advance food and economic security for farmers as well as society more broadly.

Innovative collaborations featured during the event included the:

  • Maryland Climate Smart Ag Project, which brings together voices from agriculture—farmers from all ag segments, technical service providers, state and federal agencies, agriculture and environmental organization, policymakers, and university and private research teams—to find ways to help Maryland’s farmers, ranchers and foresters adapt to climate change.
  • Delaware-Maryland 4R Alliance, which is a collaboration among agribusinesses, farmers, government agencies, conservation groups and scientists working to ensure every nutrient application on Delaware and Maryland farms is consistent with the 4Rs: the right nutrient source applied at the right rate, at the right time, in the right place.
  • Delmarva Land and Litter Collaborative, which brings together representatives from chicken companies, farming, regulatory agencies, academia and environmental groups to identify science-based solutions for profitable chicken and grain farming, clean water, and thriving ecosystems in the Delmarva Peninsula. 

Participants also learned about agricultural research taking place at the University of Maryland, including projects related to saltwater intrusion, aquaculture, cover crops and water quality, and toured the Ferry Cove Oyster Hatchery.

“We’re all thinking about the global climate changes and issues,” Watson-Hampton says. “But it’s daunting. We can only do what we can do on our own farms. If everybody takes that approach, though, if everybody does their one bit, it will make a difference. Being involved in conversations like this opens up the dialogue. Small actions do matter.”

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