A new report from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) highlights the multiple benefits of agricultural conservation practices essential to restoring the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Farm Forward examines practices that reduce pollution, combat climate change, improve soil health and farmers’ bottom lines, and boost local economies. Watch the press call announcing the report release, here.
The report is especially relevant now, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) rolling out multiple initiatives promoting “climate-smart agriculture” and Congress kicking off hearings on the 2023 Farm Bill with a review of USDA conservation programs.
Farm Forward arrives at a pivotal moment for the Bay cleanup effort as well. Despite measurable progress, this national treasure remains dangerously out of balance. Time is running out to save it and roughly 80 percent of the remaining pollution reductions must come from agriculture.
The watershed states only have until 2025 under the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint to adopt and implement pollution-cutting measures that will restore the health of the Bay and its waterways. All of the states must accelerate to meet their commitments, but Pennsylvania has, by far, the furthest to go.
“The Chesapeake region’s farmers have shown a willingness to adopt conservation practices, but often lack the technical and financial resources to do so. Using real-world examples, this report quantifies some of the multiple benefits of implementing these measures, not just to water quality, but to climate change, farm resiliency, and profitability,” said Beth McGee, CBF’s Director of Science and Agricultural Policy.
“There is no better time than now to invest in our farmers, with the 2025 deadline less than four years away and the urgent need to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases,” McGee said.
Farming practices such as rotating fields where livestock graze, planting forest buffers along streams, minimizing soil disturbances from plowing and tilling, planting winter cover crops, and maintaining areas of permanent vegetation reduce farm runoff by keeping nutrients and sediment on the ground and out of the Bay and the waterways that feed into it.
These “climate smart” practices also help increase soil organic matter and build healthy soils. Healthy soils sequester carbon and make farms more resilient to weather extremes like severe storms and drought because the ability of soil to hold water is increased relative to depleted soils.
CBF conducted a multi-year study to quantify the environmental benefits of eight watershed farms that converted conventional farmland to rotationally-grazed pasture. Case studies from four of these farms are at the end of the report.
Using farm-scale tools to estimate water quality and greenhouse gas benefits, we found that loads of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment—the three main sources of water quality impairment in the Bay and its tributaries—fell an average of 63 percent, 67 percent, and 47 percent, respectively and net greenhouse gas emissions from the farms studied fell an average of 42 percent.
Investing in conservation also pays dividends for farmers. As noted by the producers featured in the case studies, input costs (e.g., feed and fertilizer) decrease and wildlife habitat increases. In addition, case studies conducted by the American Farmland Trust measured the economic benefits to row crop farmers in New York, Illinois, and California that adopted soil health conservation practices.
The studies found that farmers improved their bottom line by an average of $37 per acre per year and, on average, farmers received nearly three dollars back for every dollar they invested in conservation practices. Implementing practices that promote healthy soil, like reduced tilling and no-till farming, cover crops, and nutrient management plans, increased farm yields and reduced the use of costly fertilizers and pesticides.
Another important practice, planting forest buffers along streams and waterways, is one of the most cost-effective ways to trap polluted runoff. Along with reducing pollution, forest buffers also sequester carbon, provide habitat for wildlife, and help reduce stream temperatures by providing shade.
The Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint calls for the Bay states to plant 190,500 acres of buffers by 2025. CBF estimates that doing so would remove more than 173,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere annually. That’s the equivalent of annual emissions produced by more than 37,600 passenger vehicles.
Investing in trees also creates jobs. In Pennsylvania, the Keystone Ten Million Trees Partnership is committed to planting 10 million new trees in Pennsylvania by the end of 2025. It expects to spend about $2.7 million through 2022, much of it with local businesses, on nearly 700,000 trees, shelters, and stakes to supply plantings. Local contractors hired to install and care for the trees will gain work, too.
With less than four years remaining for the Bay states to fulfill their pollution-reduction commitments and the window closing to blunt the worst effects of climate change, Farm Forward sounds the alarm that federal policymakers must act quickly.
CBF urges Congress to make game-changing new investments in USDA conservation programs. Along with partner groups, CBF is also advocating that USDA create the Chesapeake Resilient Farms Initiative to direct more federal conservation funds to the Bay states, particularly Pennsylvania.
“Congress and the Biden administration must step up to the plate now, while there is still time to restore the Bay and its waterways, and stave off the worst effects of climate change,” said CBF Federal Executive Director Denise Stranko.
“More conservation funding is a smart investment in productive farms, clean water, and mitigating climate change,” Stranko said. “The Bay is a powerful economic engine, an ecological wonder, and a national treasure Success is our only option.”