Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Chesapeake Bay and the Farm Bill

About every five years, Congress passes comprehensive agricultural legislation, popularly referred to as “the farm bill.” The last farm bill was passed in 2008 and at more than 1700 pages, included policies related to crop insurance and crop subsidies, food stamps, school lunches, renewable energy, and the conservation of our natural resources. The policy initiatives passed as part of the 2008 farm bill are set to expire in 2012, and Congress is now faced with passing a new farm bill, while at the same time dealing with one of the worst budget climates in history.

Farmers are often criticized for getting too much in the way of government payments, and as such, federal farm programs of all kinds have been cast as easy targets for deep spending reductions. As policymakers work to determine funding priorities, it is important to remember the essential role farmers play producing the food and fiber on which our very way of life depends. Helping to ensure that American farmers can remain on the land and make a living has long been a priority in the United States, and while there is certainly room for reform, it must remain a priority in the future.

Farmland conservation must also remain a priority for the next farm bill, because crops and livestock are not the only important things that a farmer produces for the benefit of the broader public. For along with corn and chickens, farmers are producing cleaner air, cleaner water and quality fish and wildlife habitat that improve the well-being of all Americans. And while as of yet there is no market for the environmental benefits farmers produce, federal farm conservation programs prevent farmers from having to bear the cost of conservation alone. While farmers have long been good stewards of the land and water, voluntary farm bill conservation programs add critical capacity to their desire to do what’s right.

As we struggle to make progress on cleaning up the Chesapeake, it can sometimes be easy to place the burden on the region’s farmers. While farmers share some of the responsibility for the plight of the Bay, it bears remembering that perhaps no other group has done more, more effectively, for the cleanup of the Bay than the watershed’s farmers.

Since 2003, utilizing farm bill conservation programs, farmers in the region have reduced sediment loss by 55 percent and phosphorous loss by 40 percent. One of the major drivers of toxic algae blooms in the Bay, nitrogen, has been reduced in subsurface flows by 31 percent and in surface flows by 42 percent. Conservation programs have also led to a reduction in pesticide loss from fields by 24 percent. What do all this numbers mean? Put simply, they mean that nutrients and soil are staying where they belong and not becoming the fuel on which the next Chesapeake catastrophe will feed.

There is not a one-size-fits-all formula for achieving the types of results outlined above. On a farm in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, stabilizing a stream bank and implementing delayed grazing practices for dairy cattle could help to form the basis of a runoff reduction plan. On the Eastern Shore of Maryland, a successful strategy might combine a permanent wetland restoration with the establishment of a forested buffer and the adoption of a conservation crop rotation. With assistance provided by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) farmers get the financial and technical support they need to develop and implement the right plan for their farm.

Yet while agriculture has already done much, it is likely that with the ongoing development of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Implementation Plans, the so-called Chesapeake pollution diet, farmers will be looked upon to do even more to ensure a healthy future for the Bay. Provided that the farm bill once again contains a robust suite of conservation programs, including the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative (CBWI), then the tools are there for farmers to meet the pollution diet head on; a win for farmers and a win for the Chesapeake.

On 3.4 million farmland acres across the Bay region, there is still much work to be done. According to a report released by the NRCS in early 2011, the potential upside for treatment of these acres of “high to moderate treatment need” is extraordinary. A subset of those 3.4 million acres, 810,000 acres which have been identified as eroding more quickly and subject to more nutrient runoff than average are in the most critical need of treatment. If targeted with conservation practices successfully, NRCS estimates that sediment loss due to water could be reduced by 2.3 tons per acre each and every year, keeping nearly 2 million tons of silt out of the Chesapeake Bay annually.

Perhaps even more astounding are the potential reductions in nitrogen pollution, which could be reduced by 53 pounds per acre annually on the most sensitive lands. Through good nitrogen management practices, including proper rate and timing of fertilizer application, farmers could keep 21,000 tons of nitrogen in the fields feeding crops, not in the Bay feeding algae; all the while saving farmers significant money in input costs.

With a full complement of conservation programs in the next farm bill, those numbers may very well become reality: the second half of an already successful story of voluntary conservation on the cropland of the Chesapeake. And while the Chesapeake pollution diet is subject to further development, review and, unfortunately, litigation, farm bill conservation programs will continue to quietly make big progress on reducing pollution in the Bay.

However, despite demonstrable results and the promise of an even brighter future, these programs are at risk of drastic reductions as the 2012 farm bill moves through Congress on a vastly accelerated timeline. Gaining control of our nation’s deficit is important; but an ounce of prevention is still worth a pound of the cure. Chesapeake farmers and conservationists alike couldn’t pick a better time to sing the praises of farm bill conservation programs than right this minute.

Steve Kline is the Director of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s Center for Agricultural Lands. He lives on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

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