Sprawl development is consuming the region’s best cropland, while farmers reap a diminishing portion of consumer food spending—and less than their fair share of federal farm spending.

Those and other factors pose a mounting threat to the region’s farmers, which also spells trouble for the Bay, according to a new report by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

The report, “Vital Signs: Assessing the State of Chesapeake Agriculture in 2005,” which examined 12 key indicators of agricultural health with the input of farmers and other agricultural experts came up with a bleak picture. Of the 12 indicators, 10 rated weak or unhealthy, while one was fair, one was rated good. None were scored at healthy.

“We cannot afford to continue to lose farms in the watershed,” said CBF President Will Baker. “Farming and a healthy farm economy play a critical role in local communities, in the social fabric of the region and in the water quality of our rivers, streams and the Chesapeake Bay.”

The report also won support for farm organizations, which have often been at odds with the CBF in the past.

“Profitable agriculture is the only answer to clean water,” said Buddy Hance, president of the Maryland Farm Bureau, who joined CBF for the release of the report and said farmers and environmentalists are trying to work together.

“We have a lot of the same goals, but we keep fighting each other,” he said. “We’re just trying to take the first step and mend some fences.”

Figures from the state-federal Bay Program show that agriculture is the largest single source of nutrients to the Chesapeake. But the CBF’s report argues that well-managed, financially successful farms are a critical element of the region’s economic and environmental well-being.

To make that happen, the report called for stepped-up actions by the states to protect farmlands; ensure the region gets an equitable share of federal Farm Bill payments, especially for conservation funds; promote direct sales of local products to markets and consumers to boost farm income; and invest in new technologies to reduce nutrient pollution.

“Federal and state government investments in those tools to help farmers reduce pollution and remain profitable have been inadequate,” Baker said.

The report comes at at time when groups from around the region are preparing to lobby Congress for changes in the next Farm Bill, due in 2007, which could benefit the region.

The report said that the number of farms in the Bay states had declined from 350,000 to 100,000 over the past 50 years, with most losses occurring before 1975. Stabilization since then has been accomplished primarily by an increase in the number of small, part-time farms, indicating it is becoming more difficult for families to make a living off farming.

At the same time, farmland acreage has fallen from 33.7 million acres in 1950 to 18.5 million in 2002. About 90,000 acres a year are lost to growth and development, and “prime farmland” is lost at a disproportionate rate.

Meanwhile, the report said, the Bay region lags the nation in federal farm payments, both for crop subsidies and conservation funding. Bay region farmers average 4 cents of federal funding for every dollar of production, whereas the national average is 6 cents.

The report said that the region lacks strong local and regional markets that would allow farmers to sell directly to consumers or local retailers. Such markets support the economic health of the region’s farms and reduce transportation and energy costs. Farmers who sell to local retailers get greater returns than those who sell to wholesalers.

Economically, the report said farmers are being squeezed by a number of factors. In 1952, U.S. farmers received 47 cents for every dollar consumers spend on food in grocery stores. By 2000, that had dropped to 20 cents.

The group described opportunities for new farmers as “weak,” in large part because land prices are rising faster than farm income, making it difficult for new people to enter farming and acquire long-term mortgages for land or farm equipment.

The report also said the regional farm economy suffers from a lack of diversification. From 1987 to 2002, the percent of farms responsible for three quarters of agricultural sales in the Bay states declined from 14 to 8 percent.

In large part, the report said, that resulted from the intensification of livestock operations, which has created nutrient imbalances in certain areas and allows fewer farms to participate as producers.

On a positive note, the report found that fertilizer applications per acre have declined since the early 1970s, which can save money and reduce pollution.

On environmental issues, the report said nitrogen pollution from farms increased significantly during the 1960s and 1970s, but began leveling off in the 1980s and slowly began to decline as farmers began implementing nutrient management plans and other actions to control runoff. Still, those reductions are only about a third of the goals set for agriculture in state tributary nutrient control strategies, the report said.

The rate of soil erosion has also slowed in the region, but remains above the national average, according to the report. The continued buildup of phosphorus in farm soils is also a concern as phosphorus continues to be applied at rates greater than crop needs in many areas, which increases the chance for runoff.

The report ranked state efforts to implement agricultural portions of tributary strategies as “weak,” noting that full implementation would cost about $450 million annually, of which only $80 million is currently available.

“Farmers have made substantial progress in conservation, but the costs of implementation are difficult for farmers to bear alone,” the report said. “We cannot achieve the proposed practice implementation levels without tremendous increases in effort and funding.”

“Vital Signs: Assessing the State of Chesapeake Agriculture in 2005,” can be downloaded from www.cbf.org.