General rules have exceptions, as a general rule

As parents, we have always stressed an across the board policy of openness and honesty with and for our children — no secrets. For many reasons, we believe this to be a very sound parenting policy, but we have found out that there are a few exceptions to this generally good rule.

It was our daughter’s fifth birthday party and she got the same very nice “Fancy Nancy” book from two different people. A couple of weeks later, one of her friends had a birthday party, and, rather than going to buy another gift, we simply wrapped up the extra book for the present to take to the party.

I took her to the party and she carried the wrapped gift. Upon entering the house, my daughter promptly told the birthday girl in front of her whole family, “Here is a ‘Fancy Nancy’ book. We didn’t get it at a store. I got it for my birthday party and now we are giving it to you.”

A few weeks later, just before the family Christmas party, we were on the way to my brother’s house when, out of the blue my daughter informed me, “You are getting a shirt and a book. I saw them wrapping your presents yesterday.”

Honesty is the best policy, but it seems that even the best policies have a few minor exceptions. This is certainly the same in agriculture, where every part of every field is different. There are different soil types, microclimates, drainage capabilities, nutrient levels, soil densities, and yields all within the same field. With this in mind, farmers have gone to great lengths to improve precision with technology and control this vast agricultural diversity.

Because of agricultural diversity, it is virtually impossible to make management specific rules that are broadly applied to farms. Such is the case with water quality. Different situations need to be managed differently to maximize water quality and minimize nutrient loss. Yet, all too often, regulators gloss over these differences with mandates that fail to account for the exceptions to generally good rules. A perfect example is the over-reaching regulation in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.

Just over a year ago, the American Farm Bureau Federation filed suit against the Environmental Protection Agency’s Total Maximum Daily Load regulation (TMDL) for the Chesapeake Bay watershed. AFBF claims that the EPA established new controls on land use that trespass into territory Congress legally reserves for state governments.

“We all want a clean and healthy Chesapeake Bay,” said AFBF President Bob Stallman at the time AFBF vs. EPA was filed. “This lawsuit is about how we reach that common goal. Farm Bureau believes EPA’s new regulation is unlawful and costly without providing the environmental benefit promised. Farmers in the watershed have clearly delivered a documented track record of continuous improvement, through conservation and sound stewardship and will continue their dedicated efforts.”

The EPA’s TMDL dictates how much nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment can be allowed into the Bay and its tributaries from different areas and sources. It also mandates incorporation of manure and other practices that may or may not be beneficial for water quality, depending on the circumstances.

Every farm is different, and that is part of the beauty of agriculture. But, in today’s society of sound bytes and political talking points, it can be all too easy to generalize what are really very complex and changing situations. Unfortunately, digging into those complexities takes more time and effort than many people are willing to invest. In place of attention to details, “across the board” is easier — both within farming and for those regulating it.

Moving forward, the best policy is openness, clarity and accurate assessment of the reality of the situation. These measures will, of course, always work every time without fail…probably — maybe. I guess, as a general rule, general rules have exceptions.

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